Sanders speaks Nashua Community College Saturday.

Sanders speaks Nashua Community College Saturday. Michael Dwyer/AP

Bernie Sanders Is the Best Challenger Hillary Clinton Could've Hoped For

The Vermont senator could make the Democratic front-runner a better candidate in the short-term, and as the race goes on, Clinton’s campaign is confident it’ll be able to bring Sanders’ supporters into the fold.

 LACONIA, New Hampshire — Bernie Sanders says a lot of things his fans love, what with his views on big banks, Republicans who deny climate change and the billionaire Koch brothers.

And he says one big thing that Hillary Clinton's campaign can also love: "I have never run a negative political ad in my life, and I don't intend to."

In other words, the independent Vermont senator and Clinton's top challenger at the moment for the Democratic presidential nomination is about the best kind of top challenger a front-runner can have: one who focuses on issues that pretty much every primary voter in their party can agree upon, while doing nothing to challenge her character or competence for office.

"If I'm a Hillary Clinton person, this is what I want. I want someone like Bernie Sanders in the race," says Mo Elleithee, a former top staffer at the Democratic National Committee who now runs Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service. "It gives her the opportunity to address the issues that he and his supporters want to hear about."

Elleithee says just as Bill Bradley made Al Gore a better candidate in 2000 by forcing him to engage much earlier than he otherwise would have, so Sanders could be the perfect foil for Clinton heading into the 2016 election year.

"The worst thing for everybody involved is to have an uncontested primary. You need a real primary for the nominee to prove themselves, to actually earn it, to shake some rust off, to get in shape for the big dance in the fall," he says, adding that, ideally, this would happen with a civil tone that avoids bad feelings that can linger.

At least so far, Sanders' campaign fits that model to a tee. In his seven speeches around the state this weekend, Sanders mentioned Clinton exactly zero times. And while he happily criticizes Republican presidential candidates, he rarely mentions his Democratic rivals at all. The closest he comes is describing himself as the "most progressive" of all the candidates running, as he did at a Sunday afternoon town meeting at Oyster River High School in Durham.

Mainly, though, Sanders talks about issues—typically delivering an hour-long speech about income inequality, renewable energy, the dangers of the "billionaire class," the need to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened the door for big-dollar political spending. In fact, Sanders says, being able to bring these issues to the national stage is a big selling point for running.

"One of the fun things about running for president," he told a standing-room-only house party crowd Saturday near Concord, "is that you can talk about issues that are often pushed underneath the rug."

But presidential campaigns are rarely determined purely by ideas or personalities alone. In the end, what matters is whose supporters actually trudge through possibly lousy weather to the early primary polling places. And that's where Clinton's team is head and shoulders ahead.

While Sanders greeted 500 cheering supporters at Nashua Community College Saturday morning, the Clinton campaign's New Hampshire operation held its first canvassing effort for the February primary. Some 50 volunteers converged on the campaign's third-floor suite in a downtown Manchester office building. They got a pep talk from Sean Maloney, a New Hampshire native and the first openly gay member of Congress from New York state. They got "commit to vote" flyers that will become postcards to be mailed back to the signers a week before the primary. They got training from staff about what to say, how to say it, and what to avoid saying. And most important, they got detailed lists of likely Democratic voters, broken down and mapped out into walkable neighborhoods.

When one volunteer raised her hand to ask what to say about the Republican candidates, given that all her friends believe it's a foregone conclusion that Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, Clinton staffer Peter Mellinger had a simple answer. "It's 100 percent about the primary," he said, and suggested avoiding discussions about the general election.

A short time later, as Sanders began a short drive north to the house party that would draw some 150 supporters near Concord, Clinton volunteer Chris Garretty walked a working class neighborhood in eastern Manchester.

Paula Pierce stopped mowing her lawn to chat with Garretty and asked him about Sanders. His training and talking points gave him a ready answer. He told her that Clinton has welcomed Sanders to the race as a "good Democrat," and that the two voted the same way 93 percent of the time during the years they were both in the Senate.

Pierce told Garretty she's still undecided, but in the end she'll likely be an easy sell. She was a strong supporter of Bill Clinton's campaigns in the 1990s, and backed Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she battled Barack Obama into the late spring primaries for the nomination.

"She's really, really smart," Pierce says of Clinton. "We need more women in politics. We need more women fixing things so they work."

More difficult for the Clinton campaign will be the droves of the party's most liberal voters who are flocking to Sanders' campaign events, cheering him on, wearing his stickers and buying his T-shirts. There were more than 2,000 of them at his New Hampshire appearances this weekend.

One was Susan Murphy, who as a 68-year-old retired schoolteacher would seem the profile of a die-hard Clinton supporter. She braved a heavy rain to crowd into a meeting room at the Governor's Inn to hear Sanders. "Hillary is Hillary," she said. "I think she means well, but maybe she's been in politics too long."

The Clinton campaign acknowledges that there are substantial numbers of these voters, many of whom had spent nearly a year pushing the "Ready for Warren" drive to persuade Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run. At the same time, they point to the innate contrarian nature of the New Hampshire voter that makes it difficult for any frontrunner to win with a large margin. Even Barack Obama, as a sitting president seeking re-election in 2012, only managed 82 percent in the Democratic primary—without any Democratic opponent at all.

But once the primaries are over? At that point the job of turning Sanders supporters into Clinton supporters may not turn out to be all that difficult.

Seth Kallman, 59, calls Clinton "bought and paid for" by corporate interests, and says he intends to vote for Sanders in the primary. But if Clinton wins the nomination: "I would vote for her," he says. "There is no one who's turned up on the Republican side who doesn't sound like a blithering, bought idiot."

Even Murphy can't see supporting a Scott Walker or a Jeb Bush. "I guess I would vote for Hillary," she says. "But right now I'm for Bernie."