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MANCHESTER, NH

Are they going to live in their dream world or the real world?

That’s the question being posed to New Hampshire Democrats – and left-leaning independents – as the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary approaches.

Bernie Sanders, once largely dismissed as an irrelevant long shot (though not by this columnist), has clearly found a sweet spot with New Hampshire voters.

They like his critique of what he calls a rigged economy, his castigation of Wall Street, his demand that the rich contribute more in taxes, his insistence that the middle and working classes get more by way of government help and support.

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“What this campaign is trying to do is ask the American people to think big and not small,” he said during a Friday speech to Politics & Eggs, a collaboration between the New England Council and Saint Anselm College’s Institute of Politics.

The system is just too corrupt for real change to be achieved by someone who is part of the establishment, Sanders says. This revolution can only be brought about by a fearless, full-bore, fighting progressive – and then only if millions of Americans help by rising up to demand that Congress pass his agenda.

As a theory of change, that’s one that particularly appeals to true believers and young idealists, who have flocked to Sanders.

But that’s just not the real world, Hillary Clinton and her camp rejoin. In national politics, progress is hard. Democrats must stay focused on the politics-of-the-possible, and not daydream about pie-in-the-sky policies like a single-payer health-care system. The battle for private-insurance-based Obamacare was brutal enough; it’s a huge achievement, and one liberals should work to improve, rather than starting over.

In primary politics, bolder is usually sexier and more appealing to the activists who drive primary turnout. And Sanders definitely has that going for him.

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To counter the excitement Sanders has kindled, several of Clinton’s female Senate colleagues, campaigning with her in Manchester, reminded their audience of the historic opportunity this year presents to elect the first woman president.

Don’t miss this chance, counseled Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow; in the future, people will ask: “Where were you when the most qualified person was elected president of the United State – and she was a woman?”

The Clinton camp is also trying to stoke subtle doubts – doubts about Sanders’ electability and his readiness for the job.

Democrats, Clinton declared at the packed Manchester rally, must keep their eye on the real priority: “[Making] sure we don’t let a Republican back in the White House.”

Translation: I can win. As for Bernie, who can say?

Noting that she’s worked with “the other candidate,” New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen said she was for Clinton “because I want someone who doesn’t just know what needs to be done . . . but knows how to get it done.”

Which, broadened to include foreign policy, a noticeable area of weakness for Sanders, is Clinton’s own message:

“There is only one candidate who is prepared to do all aspects of the job on day one,” she said.

Now, strange as it may seem, Clinton caught a break with a CNN/WMUR poll showing Sanders up by 31 points. Right or wrong as a snapshot, that margin won’t endure. That’s particularly true since Clinton will benefit from the efforts of the formidable political machine of Jeanne and Billy Shaheen.

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So when the primary results roll in on Tuesday, Hillary may well be positioned to declare herself the second Clinton comeback kid.

Meanwhile, she’s got her spin ready: She won Iowa; New Hampshire, as it often does (Mike Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry), went for the candidate next door. And now, with things tied at one victory apiece, it’s on to other states.

So, despite all the dire talk, expect her to make it out of New Hampshire without serious damage.

But she won’t go forward alone. By dint of his long and diligent effort, his cogent critique of income inequality, and his patient explanation of the whys and hows of his plans, Bernie Sanders, a candidate some thought would perish in New Hampshire, is also about to go national.


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