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Bernie Sanders steps up: I am not Hillary, 'trust me'

At a gathering of grassroots progressives in Pennsylvania, looking for an alternative to Hillary Clinton, finding Bernie Sanders.

HARRISBURG, Penn. – Organizers with Keystone Progress invited Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders to speak at the annual conference here this weekend. Sanders showed up.

"I like Bernie Sanders, I think he's sexy."'

The Independent senator from Vermont is actively considering a presidential run in 2016, and hopes to tap into progressive grassroots networks like this one for a potential underdog challenge to all-but-declared Democratic frontrunner Clinton.

The desire for an alternative to Clinton was clear among the 800 rank-and-file activists, labor organizers, and local elected officials here. But he's stuck between Clinton on one hand and Warren on the other, who so far tops many progressives' fantasy draft presidential ticket.

RELATED; Bernie Sanders: A Hillary Clinton matchup would be 'a real clash of ideas'

"Hillary Clinton doesn't come up in our conversations as being a progressive,” said Franklin Country Democratic Party Chair Sheri Morgan, who was manning the Progressive Democrats of America booth offering “Run, Bernie, Run” swag.

Sanders himself promised “real differences” with Clinton in an interview with msnbc's Steve Kornacki before his keynote speech Saturday. “Trust me, there will be a real clash of ideas,” he said.

Maria Payan, who volunteered for both Obama presidential campaigns, ran up to Sanders as he left the interview and pressed a check into his hand. “I want to help with your campaign anyway I can,” she said. 

Payan said she likes Warren too, and the idea of woman president, but like others here, preferred Sanders at the top of a progressive dream ticket since she thought Sanders has more experience in government. “People are looking that alternative,” she explained

Sanders will need a lot more checks if he hopes to imitate Obama – at least $50 million worth, according to his advisors -- but he’s been slow to build a fundraising or political operation. Two staffers accompanied Sanders to the event, his Senate communications director and the director of his PAC, and collected names and contact info from supporters.

RELATED: Celebrating Bernie Sanders' great career

In the absence of a formal campaign infrastructure, he's found allies in existing local groups, like the the Iowa Citizen Action Network in the key presidential state and Keystone Progress here. Sanders trails Clinton by well over 50 percentage points in early polls, garnering an average of just 3.4% in recent surveys. Warren, who has repeatedly said she is not running for president, has more support at 11%.

And it's still unclear whether Sanders has the stomach for a run. He despises what he calls the "game" aspects of politics, like fundraising and building a personality cult. "What is politics? What is serious politics?" he asked Saturday. "It's about having a serious debate about issues, not gossip, not personality."

Peter Deutsch, a retired Penn State physics professor, also liked the idea of a Sanders-Warren ticket. “To put it bluntly, no one is challenging the establishment, specifically Hillary Clinton,” he said.

"Bernie is the right guy at the right time."'

Inside the ballroom at the Hilton, where Sanders would receive four standing ovations during his speech, Keystone Progress chairman Ritchie Tabachnick called Sanders “the voice of the American conscious.”

In his Brooklyn brogue, the senator gave a version of the stump speech he’s been testing out on recent visits to Iowa and New Hampshire. It gets gloomy at times. “Now, I know that you think the situation is bad. In fact it’s worse than you think,” he said.  

Nonetheless, the crowd encouraged him to press on when his time is up, whooping at every rhetorical barb against the Koch Brothers, and gasping at statistics about the accumulation of wealth in the top 1%.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton is running out the clock

Billionaires and “counterrevolutionaries,” he explained, have “psychiatric issues” – they’re “addicted to money.” “We all know people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs; these people are addicted to money,” Sanders said. 

The result is a “philosophical war being waged against the middle-class and working families.”

The solution is a “political revolution,” but one that looks backwards, not forward, to a time when “one person could work 40 hours a week and make enough to take care for the entire family.”

Sanders’ agenda, which he’ll lay out in more detail Monday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, may not be particularly radical, but his rhetoric is, and it’s a message these activists seemed eager to hear.

"I like Bernie Sanders, I think he's sexy,” said Maggie Henry, an organic farmer who says her Western Pennsylvania business was destroyed by nearby fracking.

Bob Pyle, a pastor in the Brethren Chuck in Snyder, voted for Ron Paul in the Republican primary in both 2008 and 2012, before voting for Obama and in general, said he likes Sanders because he’s anti-establishment and anti-war. 

Sanders’ most immediate challenge in presidential politics, however, is not the Koch Brothers, but Warren, who has so far sucked up much of the organizational energy on the left despite giving zero indication that she’s running for president.

Advisors to Sanders think progressives will ultimately come around to Sanders if and when Warren doesn’t run. Michael Morrill, the executive director of Keystone Progress, agreed, “People will coalesce around a progressive candidate, whoever that is."

But activists hoping to draft Warren don’t have any immediate plans to cease their efforts and throw their support behind Sanders in the event that Warren doesn't get in. Jim Dean, a fellow Vermonter, warmly introduced Sanders before the keynote address, but he runs a group, Democracy for America, that’s trying to draft Warren. His brother, former Gov. Howard Dean, supports Clinton and hosted a fundraiser for the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary last week.

“I’d love for Sanders to run,” Dean said in an interview. But members of his group, which has long branded itself as representing the “Warren-wing of the Democratic party,” voted overwhelming to support Warren in 2016. 

Would DFA support Sanders if it becomes clear Warren isn’t running? “We’re not spending a lot of time gaming out what we’re going to do 8 months or whatever from now,” he replied, noting that about as many DFA members voted for Clinton as voted for Sanders.

When Rick Smith started his progressive talk radio show ten years ago, his very first guest was then-Rep. Bernie Sanders. Now, Smith’s show is aired on affiliates on across Pennsylvania, and he says Sanders “has been right about everything” since they first talked. 

“Warren says that she’s going to stay out and that’s the right choice,” Smith said. “Bernie is the right guy at the right time.”

But without prompting, Smith continued, “Can he win. Eh.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Sanders staffers did not collect names of supporters.