Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has spent months fishing for a strategist to guide his potential 2016 presidential campaign. On Monday, he hooked a big one: Tad Devine, one of the Democratic Party’s leading consultants and a former high-level campaign aide to Al Gore, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis.
“If he runs, I’m going to help him,” Devine said in an interview. “He is not only a longtime client but a friend. I believe he could deliver an enormously powerful message that the country is waiting to hear right now and do it in a way that succeeds.”
Devine and Sanders, who first worked together on Sanders's campaigns in the 1990s, have been huddling in recent weeks, mapping out how the brusque progressive senator could navigate a primary and present a formidable challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Devine previously served as a senior adviser to the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004 and the Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000. In 1992, he was campaign manager for then-Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey’s presidential bid.
Both men acknowledged in interviews that Sanders would face an uphill challenge and skepticism from the political class. But they are adamant that there is room in the emerging Democratic field for an independent-minded contender who can speak forcefully about the growing divide between the rich and the poor.
Sanders, a Brooklyn native and a self-described socialist, is the longest-serving independent in congressional history. Before winning election to the Senate in 2006, he served in the House and as mayor of Burlington.
“In terms of fundraising, there would be real interest in him at the grassroots level,” Devine said. “He knows how to do the organizing that’s required. As a mass media person, I also think he would be a great television candidate. He can connect on that level.”
Sanders, 73, has seen his profile rise since 2010, when he delivered a marathon filibuster on economic policy. That speech turned into a book, and Sanders has since appeared frequently on MSNBC prime-time and HBO.
Over breakfast on Saturday in Los Angeles, Sanders said that he would center a possible campaign on the “collapse of the middle class” and “income and wealth inequality,” which he calls a “huge issue from a moral sense and a political sense.”
Sanders predicted a focus on those issues could animate some small-dollar Democratic donors and keep his campaign afloat and enable him to create “movement” behind him. “People are angry and frustrated and they want someone to speak to them,” he said. “Democrats cannot run away from the simple reality that you have a billionaire class in America that is enormously greedy.”
Sanders said he will return to Iowa in December to meet with activists. “I’ve been there, I think, three times and we’ve already drawn large turnouts,” he said. “We work with grassroots progressives organizations and they bring out a lot of working-class and middle-class people. On the last visit to Des Moines, we couldn’t get any more people in the church. There were about 450 people there.”
Sanders said again that he is inclined to run in the Democratic primary but has yet to make a final decision on campaign matters. Devine, in his interview, said running within the party “means you have an infrastructure and you don’t need to be on the outside, being a Ralph Nader-type candidate.”
Sanders is one of several Democrats eyeing a primary campaign against Clinton. Others include former Virginia senator Jim Webb and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.). Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been courted by prominent liberals to enter the race, but she has resisted those entreaties and does not appear to be gearing up for a national run.