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scot lehigh

The Bernie Sanders surge

Senator Bernie Sanders.
Senator Bernie Sanders.Win McNamee/Getty Images

PORTLAND, Maine

What began as a quixotic left-wing quest has become a movement with unmistakable momentum.

That was clear from the 6,500 or so who came to the Portland civic center to hear Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on Monday. As a point of comparison, Portland proper has a population of about 66,000. It was a New England confirmation of the Sanders Surge.

The crowd, which looked like a cross section of middle-class Maine, applauded to the echo of Sanders’ declaration that together they could renew America in a way that serves the needs and aspirations of everyday citizens.

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That is, a country where every worker is guaranteed paid family leave and at least two weeks of annual vacation; where the federal government provides Medicare for all — single-payer, in public-policy parlance — rather than Obamacare; where $15 is the minimum hourly wage; and where public colleges are tuition free. A country that leads the world in battling global warming, while spending $1 trillion over the next half-decade upgrading US infrastructure; one where corporate money has been banished from politics, and where banks too big to fail are broken up.

Sanders offered little detail on the overall cost of his plans, nor much by way of pay-fors, beyond a promise to levy a tax on Wall Street speculation. But he urged the audience to reject naysaying on the ground that his program is too pricey.

“We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” he said. “There is nothing, nothing, nothing that we cannot accomplish.”

The senator’s political presentation has improved considerably from the early going. He’s still no stem-winder, but he’s less the absentminded professor, and more the organized orator stepping through a logical sequence of progressive points.

The audience was with him from start to finish of an hour-long speech built on the premise that America must demand more responsibility from corporations and the rich, and provide more aid and opportunity to the middle and struggling classes.

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Further, the huge crowds he’s drawing suggest that concerns about his age — 73 — and his general-election viability don’t have deep roots.

Some voters I spoke with said those were matters to mull, but no one considered them deal-breakers. The septuagenarian Sanders seems healthy and energetic, they said.

And as for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton being a more plausible general election candidate, Thyle Shartar, a Wiscasset resident, seemed to sum up the way the strategic- calculations-versus-heartfelt-sentiments debate is shaking out.

“I think you have to vote for what you believe in,” she said.

And besides, added Stephen Tewhey, a retired IT type from Gorham, “Bernie will move the whole conversation to the left.”

Wishful thinking? Maybe. Still, people at this rally clearly didn’t consider Sanders’ pitch to be the stuff of progressive pipe dreams, but rather simple — and long overdue — common sense.

That helps explain why, in a few short months, Sanders has accomplished something few anticipated: He has established himself as the major challenger to Clinton.

As frontrunners invariably do, Clinton has ignored her intraparty rivals and focused on the opposite party, implicitly underscoring the idea that she’s all that stands between the GOP and the White House. Plans and proposals will come later this summer, her camp says.

That timing isn’t at all unreasonable. Still, her early-season empty-calorie campaign has created a vacuum — and Sanders has stepped adroitly into it.

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For months the question on the Democratic side has been: Can any of her rivals give Clinton a run for her money?

That’s a question no longer. Sanders has now provided a definitive answer.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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