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Bernie Sanders suddenly looking and sounding like a front-runner

Is the Vermont Senator a front-runner? It sure feels like it on the campaign trail.
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at a campaign rally at the Pinkerton Academy Stockbridge Theatre, Feb. 8, 2016 in Derry, N.H. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty)
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks at a campaign rally at the Pinkerton Academy Stockbridge Theatre, Feb. 8, 2016 in Derry, N.H.
DERRY, N.H. -- Bernie Sanders, front-runner?

It sure feels like it on the campaign trail, where the famously independent senator is suddenly acting like a presidential candidate who might have something to lose — complete with a lengthy motorcade, little access to a candidate ensconced in the protection of the Secret Service, and a cadre of top aides more focused on protecting their candidate from mistakes than trying to convince skeptics that yes, he does have more than a snowball's chance in hell of taking on Hillary Clinton.

It's something of a switch from the improvisational feel that marked the Sanders campaign as recently as ten days ago. Way back then, the Vermont senator often traveled in a lone rental car, had a handful of private security at only his biggest events, and his advisers were still struggling to convince many reporters that he posed any kind of threat to the presumptive Democratic nominee.

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"Tomorrow, if we have a good voter turnout," a confident Sanders said just hours before New Hampshire polls were set to open, "I think that we're going to have a very, very good night."

It's the closest he's come to declaring victory in what's been a week of exacting expectations management on both sides of the Democratic nomination fight. But it still amounted to a passing reference to his wide polling lead over Clinton.

The rest of Sanders' final campaign day was standard campaign speech after standard campaign speech, focused on money in politics and the plight of working Americans struggling to get by. Sanders said not a word about the day's major headline: startling comments from Bill Clinton on Sunday night criticizing Sanders' supporters as "sexist" and "profane."

"When you're making a revolution, you can't be too careful about the facts," the former president told Clinton supporters in Milford then. "You're just for me or against me."

In response, the Sanders campaign had only a written statement from spokesman Michael Briggs, who called the remarks "disappointing." The candidate himself steered clear of questions from reporters Monday, a change from his typical style of holding regular press conferences and a general (if sometimes begrudging) willingness to take on-the-fly questions from reporters. Indeed, Sanders agreed with top aides that the best strategy for the final 24 hours before voting starts was to stay the course — and carefully avoid accidentally sparking a flap that could push New Hampshire's notoriously late-deciding voters to swing to Clinton.

"They [the Clinton campaign] want to have a different campaign than what we've had the last few weeks," said Tad Devine, the Sanders campaign's senior strategist. "This is a preferable route for us, and we'll try to stay on message."

Further changing the come-from-behind attitude that marked the run-up to voting in Iowa: The addition of the Secret Service, who have become an overwhelming presence at Sanders events since arriving to protect him on the trail last Tuesday. Suddenly, a campaign that often announced events at the very last minute has to plan ahead and stick to a schedule. The challenge is accommodating the senator himself, who is prone to making last minute decisions and still prefers to conduct his campaign — and life — as most little-recognized senators do.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, for example, he doesn't make the kind of staged but unannounced stops at New Hampshire diners or coffee shops to woo voters with a handful of press in tow (known to reporters as "OTRs," for "off-the-record," because they are kept off the official schedule).

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Instead, he'll decide on the fly he wants to stop for a bite to eat or for a cup of tea. One day this week, it was a diner near Peterborough. On Monday, having tea with his wife at the Bridge on Elm restaurant meant he had to ditch the two press buses that had been traveling in his motorcade. (At nine vehicles and with state trooper escorts complete with sirens and police lights, the motorcade was more like a general election nominee's than a long shot primary contender's.)

When he arrived, he and his wife sat together at a table. The lone network reporter who'd been tipped off by campaign staff was kept back in a hallway, every entrance to the room where Sanders was seated blocked by Secret Service. There was no glad handing with patrons, no asking for votes, no staged photo-op, no pool reporter carefully detailing of which kind of tea he liked.

But remaining anonymous isn't so easy any more, and he was recognized by a number of patrons in the small restaurant. He and his wife stopped briefly to chat.

But he didn't linger long.

"Hey, Bern!" said one admirer.

"Hey, how are you?" he said, before walking out the door.

NBC News' Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner and Danny Freeman contributed to this report.

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