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Vt.'s Sanders poised to be 1st Senate socialist

CASTLETON, Vt. -- A new name may soon join Fidel, Vladimir, and Karl in the pantheon of famous socialists: Bernie.

That would be Vermont's US Representative Bernard Sanders, who, in this election season of tight races, appears to be cruising to victory in his campaign for the US Senate, according to recent polls.

If elected Tuesday, he would be the first self-proclaimed socialist to serve in the Senate. Far from a stern ideologue, Sanders cuts an affable figure among his constituents, a trait on display at a rally this week at Castleton State College.

"What is this doing to my image?" he quipped as he posed for photos at the rally Tuesday with a student whose hair was dyed fluorescent blue. "I'll definitely win the entire blue hair vote!"

In Washington, Sanders is known as a fiery legislator who leans far left and refuses to join any party, instead winning eight straight elections as an independent. He has long kept a plaque in his Capitol Hill office honoring Eugene V. Debs, founder of the American Socialist Party.

But in Vermont, he is known to most simply as Bernie, a towering political figure -- second only to former governor Howard Dean in fame -- who embodies the state's contrarian streak with his rumpled professorial look and unrestrained criticism of mainstream politics.

A WCAX-TV poll last week indicated that Sanders was well ahead of his GOP opponent, software company founder Richard Tarrant, 57 percent to 36 percent. His lead was nearly as wide as US Senator Edward M. Kennedy's over Kenneth G. Chase, his GOP challenger in Massachusetts.

The Iraq war has loomed over the Sanders-Tarrant race, with 18 Vermonters killed in combat, the highest per capita rate in the nation. Sanders voted against authorizing the war in Iraq. And though he has resisted calls from some of his constituents to introduce a resolution to impeach Bush -- in March, residents of five Vermont towns voted to call on Sanders to file articles of impeachment -- Sanders has been a frequent and vocal critic of the president.

At the Castleton rally Tuesday in front of a student-heavy crowd of about 70, he called the Bush administration "the most reactionary, incompetent, and corrupt leadership in American history."

Sanders huddles with House Democrats to plan strategy and to vote for their leadership. He said he would do the same with Senate Democrats. Still, he refuses to join their party.

"I have some differences with the Democratic Party in not being strong enough in standing up for working families and taking on big money interests," he said in an interview. Staying independent "allows me, interestingly enough, a lot of flexibility," he said. "You'd be surprised. I can join coalitions with Republicans on an issue-by-issue basis."

Sanders prefers to call himself a democratic socialist and says he enjoys the freedom of not belonging to any political party.

"One of the things we have not done as a country is take a look at other socioeconomic models around the world," he said. "For example, if you look at Scandinavia, you'd find that everybody has healthcare, poverty is a fraction of what it is in the United States. . . . I think it's something to look at."

While his maverick ways have worked in the House, some political observers wonder whether he can be himself in the clubbier Senate and still be effective.

William G. Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist, said that whatever Sanders calls himself, "it's pretty clear people view him as a Democrat."

"I mean the Democrats didn't really even field a candidate against him this time," Mayer said.

Vermont Democratic Party officials actively discouraged interested Democrats from challenging Sanders. But he has four other challengers: another candidate running as an independent, the Vermont Green Party nominee, the Anti-Bushist Party standard-bearer, and the nominee of the Liberty Union Party, which Sanders helped start in the 1960s.

Sanders is seeking to replace James M. Jeffords, who is retiring after bolting the GOP five years ago to become an independent. To many political observers, a Sanders win would be convincing evidence of Vermont's political shift to the left.

"The Democratic Party used to be moribund; everyone voted Republican," said Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political scientist. "But 40 years ago, liberal people from out of state started moving here. The state has substantially transformed since then."

Sanders, 65, a Brooklyn-born graduate of the University of Chicago, started his career as an opinion writer in Burlington and helped organize the socialist Liberty Union Party, which opposed the Vietnam War . He ran five quixotic campaigns for statewide office, but in 1981 stunned Vermonters by winning Burlington's mayoral election by 12 votes.

Sanders made history when he was elected to the US House in 1990 and became the first identifiable socialist elected since Victor L. Berger of Wisconsin, who served four terms in the 1910s and 1920s.

Because Vermont has only one House seat, Sanders has become a statewide figure and has built a statewide campaign network, which gave him a natural head start in the campaign for the Senate.

"It's a Democratic year: You have an unpopular war and a very unpopular president here," Nelson said. "And you have a guy who has won eight statewide races."

These days his red Bernie signs are ubiquitous along Vermont's picturesque byways and towns.

At the Castleton State rally, students, faculty, and curious observers greeted him simply as Bernie, chatting him up about politics as well as local weather. The Iraq war recently had come home to the bucolic campus: Kurt E. Dechen, a 24-year-old Marine enrolled at the college, was killed in Fallujah in August.

"God only knows how many men and women died because of the lack of preparation," Sanders told the crowd.

He was the event's main draw; several Democrats running for local and national offices followed him to the microphone, hoping to capitalize on Sanders's popularity.

"Vermonters are a ferociously independent lot who insist on voting for the person and not the party," said Matt Dunne, who is in a tight race for lieutenant governor. "This is part of Bernie's success."

As Sanders finished and walked away from the podium, Peter Welch, a Democrat in a tight race to succeed Sanders in the House, told the crowd: "Bernie is ready for the US Senate. But I'm not sure the Senate is ready for Bernie!"

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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