DES MOINES, Iowa — On the same day retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s Democratic Steak Fry became a de facto Hillary Clinton campaign rally, another group of Iowa progressives gathered in a church basement to hear from a potential presidential candidate who’s not sure he actually wants to be president. That would be Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“Anybody who really wants to be president, who wakes up with a burning desire, is a little bit crazy. You should distrust anybody who really wants to be president,” Sanders said at one point, only half joking.
He is one of the few Democrats openly contemplating a challenge to the former secretary of state in a possible presidential campaign. This past weekend’s events in Iowa provide a backdrop for the stark contrast in the infrastructures supporting each potential candidate.
Sanders’ event in the crowded and balmy basement looked nothing like the highly produced Steak Fry, with it’s carefully placed tractors and sea of matching t-shirts. However, the 300 or 400 devotees who crammed in to the Grace United Methodist Church were just as fired up as the 7,000 gathered at the Steak Fry.
Sanders got no less than three standing ovations — one when he walked in, another when he was introduced, and a third when he concluded his very long speech. And cheers went up when it was mentioned that he’s considering a presidential bid. Outside, a large homemade cardboard sign read “Win Bernie Win!”
“As I look around here … I’m grateful and astounded that so many of you have come out here this evening,” Sanders said. Before him several local activists fulminated about various issues that tend not to get much play in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The sins of corporate agribusiness was one example.
Sanders himself criticized the Democratic Party for moving from the center-left to the center, even while the GOP moved to the far-right. “There are a lot of great Democrats, I work with them,” he said. “But I think it’s fair to say that average people do not perceive that the Democratic Party standing up for the working people of this country.”
The self-described socialist senator tossed plenty of red meat to the crowd, skewering the wealthy, influential Koch brothers every chance he got and warning of a coming oligarchy of billionaires and special interests unless the people rise up. The audience was with him at every turn, even as the speech dragged on longer than a typical politician’s stump speech. They even cheered when the senator mentioned that he doesn’t watch American television.
“I get kind of high on this, because I love it. It’s what I love,” he said, referring to public forums.
It was the third town hall event Sanders held in Iowa over the past 24 hours, all of them well attended. And he had just come from an organized labor festival in Wisconsin. “I’ve had an extraordinary weekend,” he said.
This whole trip was made with a potential presidential bid in mind.
He gave a 9-year-old girl who had just lost a student government election political advice. “I ran for the United States Senate from Vermont, I got 2% of the vote. I ran for governor, I got 1%. I ran for Senate 4%,” he said. “What you have to do is be persistent.”
Hugh Espey, the executive director of the grassroots Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, which sponsored all three of Sanders’ Iowa events, told msnbc that his group’s members and Sanders were “two peas in a pod.” “There’s millions and millions of people out here that support what he’s doing,” he said.
“I think people see Hillary Clinton as a corporate Democrat. They see her more likely to stand up for Wall Street, not Main Street,” Espey added. Sanders himself has assiduously avoided criticizing Clinton, both Sunday evening and in interviews, like his Sunday morning appearance on Meet the Press.
The Progressive Democrats of America, a national liberal advocacy group that aims to move the party to the left, handed out “Run Bernie Run!” stickers. They want the independent senator to run for president as a Democrat so his issues will be raised in a party primary — even if winning seems out of the question.
Mika Covington, a young volunteer with the group, drove several hours from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to distribute stickers at the event. “These issues will not be debated if only Hillary Clinton is in the race,” she said.