As the Democratic race in Iowa tightens, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is stepping up his political game — with a swanky campaign bus, a newfound eagerness to recite poll numbers, and an increasing tendency to throw political punches at Hillary Clinton.
On Tuesday, he crisscrossed the snow-covered roads of western Iowa in an intense four-city bus tour. Yes, Sanders now has a campaign bus — it's blue, emblazoned with his slogan, "A Future to Believe in." In smaller print, it notes that it was paid for by Bernie 2016, "not the billionaires."
"We got this bus here, as you can see," Sanders told reporters on a bitter-cold afternoon, outside his third campaign stop. "And that bus is gonna be taking me all over the state."
Tuesday's events were somewhat low-key, bringing out smaller crowds than the rallies Sanders is known to hold. But after a strong weekend debate performance, Sanders' tone was perhaps more aggressive than ever before.
At all of his campaign stops, Sanders delivered his usual economic prescriptions: universal health care, a higher minimum wage, and campaign finance reform. But he also knocked Hillary Clinton.
"Nine months have come and gone, and the candidate who everybody thought was inevitable appears today not to be quite so inevitable," said Sanders.
He criticized Clinton, albeit not by name, for forming a superPAC and accepting speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.
He also blasted her foreign policy record.
"Not only did I vote against the war in Iraq, I helped lead the opposition to the war in Iraq," Sanders said. "Hillary Clinton, who was very, very experienced ... she voted for the war in Iraq — the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of the United States of America."
Sanders told the crowds that the media initially thought of him as nothing more than a "fringe" candidate. He dismissed questions about his electability and repeatedly referenced poll numbers that show his strength against possible GOP opponents.
"I think what polls are showing is that here in Iowa we are closing the gap, maybe even a little ahead," Sanders said.
When one reporter asked if Clinton should be nervous, Sanders responded bluntly: "If I were Secretary Clinton, and I had started this campaign as the inevitable, kind-of-anointed candidate of the Democratic Party and I started 50 points up, and today I'm struggling to win in Iowa, struggling to win in New Hampshire ... yeah, I would be nervous."
At his final stop — a historic 1920s theater in Sioux City, lit up in orange and white lights to announce the "main attraction" of the evening — the senator reiterated some of the same Clinton criticisms, and threw in an additional jab.
"One of the funny things about this campaign, every day, Secretary Clinton is rolling out some other mayor or governor or senator who supports [her], and, yet we're rolling out the names of hundreds of thousands of working people who support us with individual contributions," he said.
Sanders has said that a higher turnout will improve his odds of winning Iowa. So he concluded his passionate, one-day swing through the state with a plea to participate.
"On Feb. 1, caucus night, the eyes of the country will be on Iowa," said Sanders. "And I hope that at the end of that night, what people all across this country will see is the people of Iowa saying: 'Yes, we are part of the political revolution.' "
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
As Hillary Clinton's huge lead in Iowa dwindles, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is stepping up his campaign game. Yesterday, he traveled the plains of Western Iowa in a new campaign bus. NPR's Asma Khalid reports that he gave his usual economic message and make sure to sprinkle in some jabs at Clinton.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: The blue Bernie bus drove through the snowy roads of Iowa on its inaugural voyage. In small print, the bus notes that it was paid for by Bernie 2016, not the billionaires. And Sanders showed off his new mode of transportation.
BERNIE SANDERS: We got this bus here, as you can see, and that bus is going to be taking me all over the state.
KHALID: The fourth city tour was peppered with events that were low-key, more intimate than the massive rallies he's known to hold. But after a strong weekend debate performance, Sanders' tone was a perhaps more aggressive than ever before.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SANDERS: When I began the campaign, people said, well, you're running against an inevitable candidate. Today, the inevitable candidate does not look quite so inevitable as she did eight and a half months ago.
KHALID: Sanders repeated a criticism he's leveled at Clinton for accepting speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, and he also blasted her foreign policy record.
SANDERS: Hillary Clinton, who was very, very experienced, voted for the war in Iraq - the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of the United States of America.
KHALID: Sanders dismissed questions about his electability and bragged about his poll numbers.
SANDERS: But almost all of the polls that have come out suggest that I am a much stronger candidate against the Republicans than is Hillary Clinton.
KHALID: When one reporter asked if Secretary Clinton should be nervous, Sanders responded bluntly.
SANDERS: Well, if I were Secretary Clinton, and I had started 50 points up, and today, I'm struggling to win in Iowa, struggling to win in New Hampshire, yeah, I would be nervous.
KHALID: At his final stop in an old-school 1920S theater in Sioux City, the senator made a passionate plea, asking Iowans to caucus for him. Angela Renders was there. She last caucused for President Obama and says she came in uncommitted, but Sanders won her over.
ANGELA RENDERS: I appreciate his honesty more than anything - his absolute honesty - and Hillary's a politician, so...
KHALID: So Sanders can only hope a lot more Iowans feel like Renders before February 1. But for the moment, he's switching gears, taking his political punches to New Hampshire tomorrow. Asma Khalid, NPR News, Sioux City, Iowa.
SIEGEL: And elsewhere in the program, Ari Shapiro talks about the Iowa caucuses with Hillary Clinton and about her own jabs at Bernie Sanders. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.