Sanders weighs Clinton challenge

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) is gearing up for a presidential primary challenge against Hillary Clinton and hopes to capitalize on Democratic concerns over Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street banks.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, plans to travel to two crucial presidential battleground states next month.

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He will speak at an AFL-CIO breakfast hosted in Manchester, N.H., over Labor Day weekend and then travel to Iowa in mid-September, when Clinton will be there building support for her own 2016 campaign. 

Sanders plans to return to New Hampshire, which neighbors his home state, on Sept. 27 to speak at the Stafford County Democrats annual dinner near Durham, according to his staff.

“I’ll be going to New Hampshire, and I’ll be going to Iowa. That’s part of my trying to ascertain the kind of support that exists for a presidential run,” he said Monday in an interview.

Sanders has not said whether he would run as an independent or a Democrat.

He has served as an independent during his entire career in Congress. This lack of affiliation allows him to distance himself from both parties and the low approval ratings they have as a result of years of squabbling.

But a nonpartisan bid would force Sanders to raise millions of dollars to overcome the hurdles various states have erected to make it harder for independent candidates to get their names on the ballot.

Running as a Democrat would give Sanders higher visibility by allowing him to participate in the early primary debates.  

Sanders will hold a series of town-hall meetings in Iowa in Dubuque, Waterloo and Des Moines on Sept. 13 and 14, according to his staff. Clinton will be in Iowa the same weekend to attend a steak fry hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). 

This week, Sanders will visit South Carolina, the host of another important contest early on the 2016 presidential primary calendar, to speak at an event sponsored by Progressive Voters of America, South Forward and the South Carolina Progressive Network. 

Many liberals have raised questions about Clinton’s stance on regulating Wall Street banks and expanding Social Security, but Sanders has so far declined to take shots at the presumed Democratic presidential front-runner.

“I don’t want to speak about other people,” he said.

Instead, Sanders will push his agenda, which calls for a “massive jobs program,” raising the minimum wage, changing the nation’s trade policies, programs to make childcare and college education more affordable, and subsidized healthcare.

Democratic strategists say there is room for a candidate to challenge Clinton from the left in 2016. 

“Hillary Clinton has a lot of progressive positions on issues, and she herself may move in a more populist direction, but she also has lots of ties to big money, she has lots of ties to Wall Street,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist. “She has been very reluctant to criticize Wall Street on a lot of things.

“Absolutely, there’s room on the populist left for someone to run against her,” he added.

Democratic strategists say it is far too early to say whether Sanders will emerge as the primary liberal challenger to Clinton.

They say it’s possible that other candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) or Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, might emerge as the leading alternative.

Liberal advocates say there are many questions about Clinton’s policy stances. She has stayed relatively quiet about domestic issues since retiring from the Senate in 2008.

“I would like to know more about where she stands. The world has changed a lot since her husband was president, and she hasn’t had to deal with domestic issues since she was in the U.S. Senate,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future. “The questions I would like her to debate and discuss is what do we do with this banking system that is a problem for the real economy.

“Do we continue to deregulate the way her husband did or do we break up the banks and make them less powerful?” he said.

Democratic activists acknowledge that Sanders is unlikely to present a serious threat to Clinton, but they are happy to see him jump in the race because they want a vigorous debate over Wall Street.

Warren has emerged as the leading Democratic voice on Wall Street reform, but she insists she does not plan to run for president.

“The big question that most progressives have for Hillary is, ‘Where is she now compared to the past?’ ” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a liberal advocacy group. “In the past she sided with the Wall Street wing of the party. The reality is that the corporate, Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party is going away.

“The future of our party is the Warren wing, which is fighting to break up the big banks, expand Social Security and fighting economic inequality,” he said.

Liberal Democrats hope a challenge from Sanders or another populist candidate will force Clinton to move to the left on financial regulations, corporate tax reform and expanding Social Security.