Sen. Bernie Sanders hits the road, teases 2016 presidential bid

In this file photo, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, speaks during a protest held by furloughed federal workers outside the U.S. Capitol to demand an end to the lockout of federal workers caused by the government shutdown October 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee, Getty Images

On the list of people who could plausibly be the next president of the United States, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, is nowhere near the top. But with a slew of upcoming visits to early primary states, it's clear the longtime senator wants to at least be a part of the conversation.

Sanders, a progressive independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, is headed to South Carolina this week to speak at a gathering of progressive activists. He's scheduled to visit New Hampshire, next door to his home state, over Labor Day weekend to address an AFL-CIO breakfast, with another visit planned for the end of the month. And in mid-September, he'll travel to Iowa for a series of town hall meetings.

The trips, he told The Hill newspaper, are "part of my trying to ascertain the kind of support that exists for a presidential run."

Polls have shown former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton running away with the nomination in 2016 if she decides to run. Progressives have cast about for alternatives, saying they respect and like Clinton, but they're worried about her ties to Wall Street and her occasionally hawkish positions on foreign policy.

The hope is that pitting a credible primary challenger against Clinton could foster a vibrant conversation about the Democratic Party's priorities, pushing the presumptive frontrunner to embrace a more progressive message.

The problem, though, is finding someone who's willing to take on that near-quixotic task.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, is beloved by progressives, and a strong fundraiser to boot, but she's repeatedly ruled out a bid. Other alternatives, like Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Maryland, and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D-Montana, have openly entertained a run, but their support in primary polls amounts to a rounding error.

Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and longtime liberal crusader, would certainly have the requisite ideological bona fides, but he'd likely suffer from the same fundraising and visibility problems that dog other Democrats who aren't named Clinton.

And it's also not clear Sanders is willing to play the role of progressive attack dog. The senator has suggested he's more in addressing issues that concern him, like income inequality, Wall Street reform, and job creation, than he is in tearing down fellow Democrats. "I don't want to speak about other people," he told the Hill when asked to critique Clinton's record.

  • Jake Miller

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