DES MOINES, Iowa — Bernie Sanders is attracting Americans who are in search of more than a protest vote.
Yes, Sanders' backers say, they're frustrated with a system they believe is rigged for the wealthy. But many say their support for the Vermont senator in the Democratic presidential race is also driven by real hope in his promise of a political revolution and a belief that his ideas are bold enough to bring economic security to the middle class.
"I just like a gutsy guy that doesn't have his hair combed perfect and all that," Emmett Lahr, a 75-year-old from Glidden, Iowa, said of the rumpled Sanders.
But it's more than that. Lahr had planned to vote for Hillary Clinton, but says he's now "90 percent switched" to Sanders, largely because of what Sanders wants to do for the economy.
Interviews with more than two dozen Sanders supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire reveal deep antipathy toward Clinton. The longtime front-runner for the presidential nomination is seen by Sanders' backers as part of the system they want to overhaul. While most Sanders' supporters seem to view President Barack Obama favorably, some regret that Obama hasn't been able to achieve more domestic policy goals of the left.
Sanders' growing legion of supporters has him positioned for possible victories in the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1 and New Hampshire's primary Feb. 9. The solid underpinnings of Sanders' support also make it more difficult for Clinton to cast him simply as unelectable and impractical.
"I look at Bernie's opponents and I say, you know, these guys are in it for themselves," said Robert Digrazia, 72, of Hollis, New Hampshire. "My sense is that Bernie is on my side."
For months, Sanders was seen as a formidable liberal foil for Clinton and a Democratic equivalent of Donald Trump — anti-establishment figures with populist appeal and the ability to draw massive crowds. It's only in recent weeks that polls suggest Sanders has become a threat to defeat Clinton in both of the early states. His campaign believes twin victories would give him an opening to push forward for the nomination.
"It's just a question of trying to get momentum," said Tad Devine, a Sanders adviser.
Sanders and Trump share outsider appeal as well as overlapping views on trade and foreign policy.
Steve Stanley, a 63-year-old "union guy" from Earlham, Iowa, said that between Sanders and Trump "you've got an alternative" to the politics-as-usual candidates.
Still, there's noticeably less anger at Sanders events than among people at Trump rallies, and nearly all of those interviewed were familiar with the outlines of Sanders' policy proposals.
"It's his consistent record that I really like," said Hunter Hansen, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from Fort Dodge, Iowa. "And the fact that he's not bought by big lobbyists, big corporate interests. His opinion isn't bought."
Sanders is a fierce opponent of super political action committee, which can collect unlimited donations. He mentions at every campaign event that his average campaign contribution is $27. He also has become increasingly critical of the high-dollar speaking fees Clinton received from the same Wall Street firms that Sanders wants to break up.
As the race has tightened, Clinton has vigorously attacked Sanders, accusing him of flip-flopping on guns, being a foreign policy lightweight, and calling for plans that are unrealistic. She specifically has challenged his call for free tuition at public colleges and universities and for a taxpayer-financed health care system.
Among some undecided Democrats, the feasibility of Sanders' proposals is a concern.
"Even some of the Democrats won't want to go along with some of his stuff, so I wonder how much he can do," said Chris Short, 35, who attended a Sanders gathering this past week in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
But those backing Sanders or leaning his way give the senator credit for thinking big and being willing to upend a system they no longer believe is working for the middle class.
"Bernie's got the gumption and the persistence to win and be a good president," said Dick Champagne, 74, an independent New Hampshire voter who is backing Sanders and volunteering for his campaign after first favoring Trump.
Most of Sanders' supporters who were interviewed backed Obama and remain generally supportive of the president. But there's frustration over the Asia-Pacific trade deal and the president's years of dawdling over the Keystone XL oil pipeline. There also is concern that while Wall Street banks have only gotten bigger after the 2008 financial crisis, the economic recovery doesn't always feel real for the middle class.
"We definitely want the country to be turned around," said Lahr, who voted for Obama twice.
When it comes to Clinton, Sanders' backers views range from indifferent to disdainful.
"I have no basis for this, but I don't like her," said Carolyn Ferry, a nurse from Eagle Grove, Iowa, who plans to caucus for Sanders. She said she would be willing to accept Clinton as his running mate.
With about a week until the caucuses, Sanders' biggest challenge will be channeling momentum into results. His campaign has 14,000 volunteers operating in the state and expects 50,000 Iowans to have attended a Sanders event by Feb. 1.
But Sanders' team is aware that his good month in Iowa raises the stakes for a strong finish.
"I think we have to do very well in Iowa," Devine said. "I don't think we can afford a huge loss there."
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Winterset, Iowa, and Sergio Bustos in Nashua, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.
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