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Democratic Challenger to Clinton Draws Big Crowds

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign rally in Portland, Maine. Sanders is packing 'em in: 10,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin, July 6, 2015.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders may be a longshot against favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton, but he is still drawing bigger crowds than any other presidential candidate, up to 10,000 people at one event.

The trick for the independent senator from Vermont and self-described democratic socialist is to turn all that excitement into something more than a summer fling. Will those supporters turn out in key states that hold the first nominating contests in next year's primary race?

“We've only been a declared candidate for two months,” Sanders said recently in Iowa. “In a certain sense, our momentum is outpacing our infrastructure.”

In presidential politics, infrastructure matters. For Sanders to turn his insurgent campaign into an honest challenge against an unquestioned front-runner like Clinton, he will need to convert those willing to come hear him speak in the summer of 2015 into volunteers, donors and, ultimately, voters in 2016.

For all the crowds that Sanders is attracting, and the attention he's getting for them, he remains far behind Clinton in the work of building a big campaign organization. He has a few more than 50 paid staffers in all. Clinton has nearly 50 in Iowa alone, as well as at least one in every other state.

“The grassroots movement behind this campaign has been much faster than I think anyone could have anticipated,” said Sanders' campaign manager Jeff Weaver. “The organization is trying to catch up to where the people are.”

More than 100 people crowded into the Better Day Cafe in Storm Lake to hear Sanders. A table at the front of the restaurant held clipboards with sign-up sheets, where people could fill in their name, email address and phone number as well as a box to check if they planned to caucus for Sanders. By the end of the event, many had signed up, but few had checked the box indicating how they'll vote.

Weaver said the infrastructure needed to turnout supporters for the caucuses is coming soon. Sanders has more than 20 paid staffers in Iowa, with more scheduled to come aboard next month. In New Hampshire, he has four paid staffers, but the state will get a “big jump soon,” Weaver said.