NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — On his final day in New Hampshire before shifting his attention to Iowa, Sen. Bernie Sanders stuck to his campaign’s core themes and largely avoided calling out his chief rival.
In fact, Sanders only referenced Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady, once when discussing his plan to boost Social Security. His town hall meeting at the North Conway Community Center Gymnasium Friday morning was a more intimate affair with about 650 supporters than some of his previous rallies that have drawn thousands of supporters. But his message was the same.
Sanders promoted his plan to force more regulations on Wall Street, called for a single-payer health care system that covers all Americans and again called for tuition-free colleges and universities.
Sanders promoted his plan to lift the income cap on Social Security so that wealthy Americans will pay a greater percentage of their income into the program. In his only direct reference to Clinton Sanders said she has not embraced his idea.
“I have asked her time and time again, will she join me in lifting the cap so we can improve lives for low-income seniors? I hope she will join me,” the self-described democratic socialist said.
Sanders spent Thursday and Friday in the Granite State ahead of the Feb. 9 primary. He is now turning his attention to Iowa, which holds the first presidential nominating contest on Feb. 1. Sanders plans to hold events in Iowa every day leading up to its caucus.
Recent polling shows Sanders with leads in both early states, setting him up to deliver a devastating blow to chief rival Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady. Clinton, long-presumed to be inevitable nominee, has sharpened her attacks on Sanders as his poll numbers climbed, and now perhaps, eclipse her own numbers.
A CNN/WMUR poll released Thursday gives Sanders the edge in Iowa, 51 percent to 43 percent, among likely Democratic caucus-goers. In New Hampshire, a CNN/WMUR poll conducted between Jan. 13 and Jan. 18, found Sanders has his largest lead yet over Clinton — 60 percent to 33 percent.
Sanders seemed to marvel at just how far his campaign has come since he formally announced his candidate on the Burlington, Vt., waterfront. He noted that at that time he had no campaign cash, no real campaign organization and relatively little name recognition outside of New England.
“When we began the campaign the media was very nice and they said, ‘Bernie Sanders you’re a nice guy, you comb your hair really well and you’ve got that Vermont GQ look to you, but despite all those attributes you’re probably not going to do very well,’” he said. “A lot has happened in nine months. What has happened, I think, essentially, is it turns out that ordinary Americans have been looking at the political process a little bit differently than the pundits on TV.”
Sanders said his candidacy has highlighted that “people are dissatisfied with the establishment” and “worried to death about what happens to their children and whether or not their kids will for the first time in America have a lower standard of living.”
Sanders has been calling for a political revolution on the campaign trail. He told supporters Friday that the only way he can be successful, along with his ideas, is if the American people become more involved in the political process.
“My message to you today is don’t just elect Bernie Sanders as president and then think that I’m going to do it all alone. It doesn’t work that way,” Sanders said. “The only way we bring the kind of change that we need, the change that the American people believe we should have, is when millions of people begin to stand up and get involved in the political process in a way that we have not seen in a very, very long time.”
Sanders often calls out the “billionaire class” at his campaign events. But on Friday he took direct aim at the Walton family, which owns Walmart. He intimated that Walmart employees are in need of government assistance because of the Walton family’s greed.
“The reason that many of Walmart’s employees need food stamps, need affordable housing … is that the Walton family does not pay its workers a living wage,” Sanders said, calling on a $15 per hour minimum wage. “My advice to the Walton family — stop taking welfare from the middle class. Pay decent wages.”
Clinton and her surrogates, including daughter Chelsea, have criticized Sander’s single-payer health care plan, saying it would “dismantle” the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama. Sanders defended his plan, saying he helped pass the health care reform law, but now wants to ensure coverage for every American.
“While the Affordable Care Act has made good progress, we still have a long way to go to do what virtually every major country on Earth does,” he said. “While we have expanded health care coverage, there remains 29 million people in America who have no health insurance. Even more important, there are millions more who are under-insured.”
Sanders also spoke to students at Concord High School Friday afternoon, repeating his core economic message. This time, however, the students had a chance to speak. Sanders queried the students gathered in the school’s auditorium about the distribution of wealth in America.
“Clearly it’s wrong for one family to own as much wealth as 40 percent of the nation,” one student said.
“To me, it seems as if its a rigged lottery,” another girl said. “Some kids, even with extreme hard work, cannot achieve the goals they want to achieve.”
Another student named Colleen decried the cost of college and wondered how she would afford it.
“I’ve been working since I just turned 16. I’m 18 now. I’m hopefully looking at going to college next year but I’m looking at $20,000 a year that I can’t afford,” she said. “It doesn’t seem fair that I’ve been working for $8 an hour … to graduate with debt when I’ve never gotten a B in my life.”
Sanders said the students’ concerns are the heart of his campaign.
“I think Colleen said it better than I can say it. It gets back to who we are as a nation,” he said.
Looking and sounding like a lecturing professor, Sanders did his best to urge the students to get involved in the political process. And like and wise politician, gave a shout-out to the hometown team.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport. Watching the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl is a spectator sport. For Tom Brady it is not a spectator sport. He’s in the middle of the conflict,” Sanders said. “Every one of you has got to be down there on the field, and what that means is studying the issues that impact our country.”
As Americans citizens, understanding that people have fought and died to preserve the American democracy, that is your job — not only to protect American democracy, to invigorate American democracy,” he added.