WASHINGTON — In one debate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pointed a crooked finger at an audience member and yelled at him. “Do you not believe me?” he barked.
In a separate exchange, Sanders leapt out of the seat and, defying the debate rules, dressed down his opponent: “It’s people like you . . . ,” he began, before being cut off by the moderator amid boos from the audience.
These moments are classic Sanders, according to interviews with those who have shared a debate stage with him over a 25-year career in statewide campaigns. He can get defensive. Insults lodge under his skin. He turns bright red and can display a flaring temper.
As Sanders tries to capitalize on his large crowds and leading position in some early state polls, his next big test will be in the upcoming Democratic debates, where the candidate who rose to prominence via small town exchanges before a handful of people will be up against one of the Democratic Party’s most seasoned debaters.
Democratic activists are clashing over how many debates should be held, highlighting how Sanders — and such dark-horse candidates as former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — are hungry for the chance to raise their profile by sparring with Hillary Clinton.
A review of Sanders’ past debates provides some window into the risks that Clinton faces in these showdowns. What he lacks in polish he makes up for with authenticity and energy, and former opponents of Sanders warned that Clinton should not underestimate him.
“Nobody delivers a message better than Bernie Sanders, even though I don’t like the message,” said Richard Tarrant, the Republican who ran against him in 2006.
The first debate is in Las Vegas next month, before what’s expected to be the largest televised audience Sanders has ever experienced.
Yet Sanders’ campaign says that at this point, the candidate is doing little to prepare for the moment. The man who prides himself in having no pollster is showing little appetite for the traditional debate preparations, elaborate productions that can include briefing books and mock debates. Instead, Sanders seems to be willing to let his signature style — and his years on debate stages in Vermont — be the main conditioning for next month’s showdown.
“It’s not like Bernie is going to change his message after three decades,” said campaign spokesman Michael Briggs, who allowed that Sanders might travel to Nevada a few days early to get used to the setting.
Indeed, the setup for a presidential primary debate will be a far cry from the exchanges Sanders is accustomed to in Vermont, where the candidates sit behind folding tables in veterans halls or across from each other at radio stations. And there will probably be fewer distractions: In one of Sanders’ more raucous Vermont debates, a fringe candidate was hauled off stage by a sheriff after using expletives when addressing a student questioning him. The fringe candidate was then arrested.
Those who have clashed with Sanders expect him to hew to many of the same talking points that he’s been pushing since his earliest days in office: Blame the wealthy, note the disparities between the rich and the poor, deliver with passion.
“He is a fiery person,” said Tim Lennon, the campaign manager for Tarrant. “He did lose his cool to a certain extent. Part of the fieriness is part of the attraction.”
The Democratic Party is set to have four debates before the Iowa Caucus. Two more are scheduled after the primary voting season begins, bringing the total to six. That’s about half the number on the Republican debate schedule.
The lopsided schedule has left Democrats standing on the sidelines over the last few weeks while Republicans dominate news cycle after news cycle with their exchanges. Both of the GOP debates held so far smashed ratings records and shaken up in the crowded Republican field.
At a meeting of state Democrats last weekend in New Hampshire, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was drowned out by chants from the audience demanding more debates. That came after O’Malley used his speech at the summer DNC meeting in Minneapolis to call for adding more exchanges and then accused the party of having a system “rigged” in favor of Clinton.
Sanders has joined that call, and his campaign website includes a petition calling on the DNC to add to the schedule.
“The best chance for this country is discussing the issues that matter,” according to Sanders’ website. “Republicans aren’t going to do it, so we need more Democratic debates.”
One person who finds that stance a little odd is William Meub, a personal injury lawyer in Rutland.
Meub was Sanders’ Republican opponent in his 2002 House of Representatives contest, and pressed hard for more than the half-dozen debates that were scheduled.
Feeling that his calls were ignored, he went to Sanders’ Burlington Senate office and interrupted a news conference that Sanders was having on the state’s dairy economy.
“We are dealing about the agricultural crisis in the state,” Sanders said, according to a transcript of the exchange by Vermont Public Radio.
The two went back and forth several times, with Sanders saying they would have a chance to debate because several encounters were on the books.
Meub replied: “You used to say you’d debate 10 or 15 times. Live by your words Congressman Sanders!”
Sanders shot back: “Excuse me! Thank you very much! This is an embarrassment. We’re talking here with the Farm Bureau about an agricultural crisis and you come barging in. You should really know better. . . . ”
The Sanders campaign didn’t reply to an e-mail asking about the episode.
Sanders and Meub went on to hold a few debates. Meub recalled that Sanders’ wife, Jane, would sit on the sidelines and coach him, using hand gestures to encourage him to either wrap up or expand on a point.
The exchanges, he said, were “strained.”
“He wouldn’t look at me,” Meub said. “He always avoided looking at me.”
More than a decade after those debates, Meub said he is hearing the exact same talking points from the senator that he did back in their campaign.
“Bernie has a message — and never has he deviated from his fiscal message,” Meub said. “The problem is the rich. Everything boils down to capitalism and the rich.”
If the message is the same, the Vermont senator’s demeanor has softened somewhat.
“I don’t think I ever saw Bernie smile,” recalled Tarrant, a technology mogul who self-funded his 2006 Senate bid. “Now he smiles all the time.”
Sanders is quick on his feet — and even then he could showed a flash of humor.
During one 2006 exchange. Sanders began the debate with a “gruff nod,” according news reports at the time. He offered thanks to “many of you for voting for me” and was met with boos.
“OK, I’m not thanking all of you,” Sanders deadpanned.