DES MOINES, Iowa — Eight months after launching his campaign on the shore of Lake Champlain, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is hoping to complete his remarkable rise in national politics with a victory of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in Monday’s Iowa caucus.
Sanders, at age 74 and a self-described democratic socialist, is the improbable challenger to Clinton, the former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady, whom pundits had believed would quickly lock up the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. But Sanders incessant focus on income inequality and the wage gap dividing a handful of super-wealthy Americans from the rest of the country has caught on.
He has weathered — so far — Clinton’s blistering attacks on his lack of foreign policy experience, his vote to provide blanket immunity to gun makers and his promise of free college tuition and single-payer health care. On the eve of Monday’s caucus, Clinton is preparing to increase the intensity of her full-frontal assault.
Clinton was scheduled to appear in Ames on Saturday with former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was seriously injured five years ago in a shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Giffords has since become one of the loudest voices in the country advocating for more gun control.
Meanwhile, Clinton continues to face questions about her use of a private email account and server during her tenure as secretary of state. Sanders, who famously declared at a debate last year that the American people did not give a “damn” about her emails, continues to avoid the issue. He issued a statement Friday distancing himself from the news that several more emails on her server have been classified “top secret.”
“As I said at the first Democratic debate, there is a legal process in place which should proceed and not be politicized. The voters of Iowa and this nation deserve a serious discussion of the issues facing them,” Sanders said.
Sanders has also sharpened his tone, repeatedly linking Clinton to Goldman Sachs, the financial firm that has paid Clinton millions of dollars in speaking fees. Sanders has intimated that Clinton and others who have been paid by big banks will not be prepared to regulate them.
Speaking in Charles City Saturday, Sanders again said he was running a clean campaign free of negative ads.
“We’re not getting involved in negative ads. We’re not going to get involved in attacking people in horrendous ways. I’ve never done that. I never will do that,” he said, according to a pool report from the Washington Post’s John Wagner.
Sanders took umbrage with the Clinton campaign, however, accusing it of running misleading ads.
“I am disturbed, I have to say, that the tone of Secretary Clinton’s campaign is such that they are just bringing forth a lot of inaccurate statements, a lot of inaccurate statements regarding what I believe,” Sanders said.
As of Saturday afternoon, realclearpolitics.com gave Clinton a slight edge in an average of Iowa polling. She had an average of 47.7 percent to Sanders’ 44.3 percent. It is within the margin of error, however, and several recent polls have had Sanders in the lead.
The Sanders campaign is planning a full-slate of events through the Monday night’s caucus. On Saturday, the campaign held a rally in Cedar Rapids and a rally and concert for students in Iowa City featuring the rock band Vampire Weekend.
The Sanders campaign said Saturday it has welcomed 63,000 Iowans to events since the launch of the campaign. In total, Sanders’ events around the country have had more than 500,000 attendees.
“We are running a simple, straightforward grassroots campaign. We are discussing the major issues facing our country and hearing what Iowans have to say,” the senator said in a statement. “We sense growing momentum here in Iowa and we think we have a great opportunity to win.”
Also on Saturday, the Sanders and Clinton campaigns reached a tentative deal to add four more debates to the primary schedule. If the agreement — first reported by Buzzfeed — holds up, the two would join Martin O’Malley, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, for a debate in New Hampshire next week, followed by three more in the spring.
The Democratic National Committee has refused to add to its six debate schedule. Sanders and O’Malley have repeatedly called for more debates. Clinton has recently called for more debates as Sanders has surged. The DNC has not yet sanctioned the additional debates.
Sanders has a full schedule Sunday, including a large rally in Des Moines with MoveOn, the liberal activist group that has endorsed him.