WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders did something few U.S. politicians ever do these days: he took his message to an audience that disagreed with him.
Sanders is a progressive liberal who calls himself a democratic socialist. On Monday, he made his stump speech at Liberty University, the largest evangelical Christian University in the world.
In Lynchberg, Virgina, Liberty is where ultra conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz had gone last March to declare his Republican candidacy.
Sanders waded right in with a declaration of his support for abortion rights, an anathema to the students and faculty at the convocation service, along with a group of Sanders’ local supporters.
“I believe in women’s rights and the right of a woman to control her own body,” he said.
Having established the crux of his disagreement with the evangelical audience, Sanders went on to suggest that there are grounds for agreement.
“Let me respectfully suggest there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and, in fact, to the entire world that maybe - just maybe - we do not disagree on,” he said.
Sanders went on to deliver his key message that income and wealth inequality in the United States have become so stark, they must be addressed. Using Biblical quotes, he cast the issue in ethical terms.
"Do you think it is moral that 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, are living in poverty?"
The audience of 12,000 was not only respectful, but at times responded with applause.
Not Just a Ploy
Most politicians confine themselves to speaking to audiences they know are supportive.
“It is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you,” Sanders said.
But choosing to speak at Liberty was more than a publicity stunt. Sanders believes that his challenge to billionaires and corporate interests will resonate across ideological lines and that that is his path to winning the presidency.
But at times Monday, he and Liberty Senior Vice President for Spiritual Development David Nasser, who fielded questions, seemed to need a translator.
Nasser said that Liberty students would agree that children need protection, but “children in the womb need our protection even more. How do you reconcile the two?”
When Sanders said it was “unacceptable” to discriminate against people because of the color of their skin, Nasser countered, “We would say racism is not so much a skin issue as it is a sin issue.”
Democrats in Iowa, Obama
President Barack Obama may not be not be running for president in 2016, but Monday he showed up in Iowa where the first-in-the-nation primary contest will be held in February.
Obama was ostensibly in Iowa to promote administration education initiatives at a question-and-answer session with students at North High School in Des Moines.
But right off the bat, he acknowledged Iowa’s special status.
“I was missing you guys,” the president said.
In 2008, Obama pulled off an upset against opponent Hillary Clinton in Iowa. And in 2012, he held his final rally as a candidate in Des Moines, Iowa’s capitol.
If Obama was in Iowa to show support for Democratic candidates, he confined his talk at the forum to college access and costs, including this piece of advice for his daughter Malia, who is applying to college this year: “keep your grades up until you get in, and after that make sure you pass.”
Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton was out-and-out campaigning at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
Clinton, like Sanders, went after inequality in income distribution.
“If you work hard and you do your part, you should be able to get ahead and stay ahead," she said. "That’s how it is supposed to work in America. That is how it has worked for generations.”
Clinton said she would “make America work for everybody,” but she added that her work as secretary of state has also prepared her to take on challenges like Islamic State, “those issues that keep you up at night.”