Bernie Sanders, No Longer the Front-Runner, Brings Campaign Home to Vermont

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Senator Bernie Sanders returned to his home state on Saturday for the first time since he declared in February that he was running for president again, displaying the uncompromisingly liberal defiance that many of those in the audience have been hearing for decades.

Under overcast skies, Mr. Sanders lamented big corporations, argued for “Medicare for all” and assailed fossil fuels. He also took the opportunity to emphasize his foreign policy agenda — including his opposition to the war in Iraq and to American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — while lacing his remarks with criticism for the news media even as he criticized President Trump for calling journalists “the enemy of the people.”

“Recently, I have been attacked in the media because of my views, actions and votes on foreign policy issues,” he said. “I make no apologies,” he repeated several times.

In recent days, news outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post have published reports about Mr. Sanders’s foreign policy record in the 1980s when he was the mayor of Burlington, Vt., which included trips to Nicaragua in support of the Sandinista government, as well as to the Soviet Union.

But though people on stage before him listed his accomplishments in Vermont, he did not, preferring instead to stick largely to his typical rally script.

If his stop in Vermont’s tiny capital was to be a homecoming, it also served as something of a reset for his campaign. For months, Mr. Sanders had enjoyed the status of front-runner, holding big rallies to demonstrate his strength and barely deviating from his anti-establishment message even as advisers urged him to talk more about himself.

But with the entrance last month of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. into the crowded 2020 Democratic field, Mr. Sanders is running second — by double digits — in most national polls. A recent survey from Morning Consult showed that the advantage for Mr. Sanders among 18- to 29-year-old voters — his strongest voting bloc — had slipped.

Though campaign aides are content, for now, for Mr. Sanders to sit in second place, there have also been signs of a battle to come. In the weeks since Mr. Biden entered the race, Mr. Sanders has lodged a series of broadsides against the former vice president, attacking him for his history of supporting free trade measures and for voting for the war in Iraq. Not to be outdone by Mr. Biden’s retail politicking, Mr. Sanders plans to hold a series of ice cream socials in New Hampshire on Monday before making a return trip to Nevada.

He is also starting to host in-person grass-roots fund-raisers, which his campaign said would allow the senator to show appreciation for, and interact with, donors in smaller venues. Ticket prices will be tiered, according to his campaign, with the first level starting at $27, and the events will be open to the news media. (Though his 2016 campaign was known for its online fund-raising prowess, it held meet-and-greet fund-raisers as well.)

Mr. Sanders’s appearance, before enthusiastic supporters who packed the vast lawn in front of the State House, was marked by an enduring pride in Vermont. Though he hit many of his usual themes, he also checked off the state’s notable moments throughout history: participating in the underground railroad, outlawing slavery, legalizing same-sex marriage.

“Maybe we run in 2020 on a message that says, ‘Cherry Garcia in every freezer,’” he said, in a nod to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, founded in Vermont, which was supplied free at the rally.

(A campaign aide said Mr. Sanders was appearing this weekend in Montpelier, not Burlington, because “it is a beautiful venue that speaks to his commitment to the state.” Burlington, as it happens, is also hosting a marathon this weekend.)

There is some debate over how effective Mr. Sanders has been as a Vermont official. As Burlington’s mayor, he at times faced criticism for focusing too much on foreign policy. But he also successfully turned the shores of Lake Champlain, much of which had been industrial wasteland, into a bustling, accessible waterfront — an accomplishment his campaign highlighted in a video about his mayoralty that it released on Friday.

Among Vermonters, Mr. Sanders still engenders a strong sense of loyalty, and his presence in the state Saturday was, for many, a welcome sight.

“I believe it’s the last time that we’ll be able to touch him like we usually do without him belonging to the country,” said Brenda Lee LeClair, 55, of Richmond. “We have to be unselfish and give him up.”

Leigh Seddon, 68, of Montpelier, said he had worked with Mr. Sanders in the past and had “been a Bernie fan for a long time.”

But he could not resist needling the senator’s grander ambitions just a bit.

“He doesn’t get a lot of time for Vermont anymore — that’s O.K.,” he shrugged. “He cares about Vermont, but he has bigger things on his mind.”

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