Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a recent campaign event at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Morgan/Reuters)

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is now running neck-and-neck with front-runner Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, two make-or-break contests for the Vermont senator.

It’s a dynamic that cries out for spending as much time as possible in the first two nominating states before voters there shape the rest of the race on Feb. 1 and Feb. 9.

So why is Sanders diverting to Birmingham, Ala., on Monday, just two weeks before the Iowa caucuses?

He is scheduled to appear for an evening rally, making his first appearance in Alabama since becoming a presidential candidate in late April.

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The trip underscores both Sanders’s confidence that he’ll still be running strong after New Hampshire and the importance of African-American voters if Sanders is going to be competitive with Clinton over the long haul.

The rally, on Martin Luther King Day, is being billed as an opportunity for Sanders to discuss the legacy of the civil rights leader and “the ongoing fight for racial justice.” Sanders will be joined by two of his most visible African American supporters: the academic Cornel West and Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator with a national reputation in Democratic politics.

“We are running a national campaign,” said Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver when asked about the timing of the rally. “We anticipate that there will absolutely be a very active contest after the first two states.”

Alabama is among about a dozen states that hold Democratic caucuses or primaries on March 1, the day known as Super Tuesday. If Sanders upsets Clinton and Iowa and wins in New Hampshire, it could become a pivotal day in the nomination fight.

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Only two other states, Nevada and South Carolina, hold contests between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday.

To this point, Clinton has enjoyed a big advantage in states with sizable African American populations, including Alabama. Black voters will become a key constituency for Democrats after Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with largely white populations.

Sanders, who represents a state that is 95 percent white, has said from the outset of the race, that he faces a challenge in becoming better known among minority voters -- and it’s something into which his campaign is pouring a great deal of effort.

Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic operative and leading Sanders adviser, said the Birmingham rally is “an opportunity for [Sanders] on Dr. King’s birthday to showcase a cause that’s been a central part of the work of his life. It’s a national stage on a national holiday.”

Birmingham is among the U.S. cities key to King’s legacy. His work and arrest there were the impetus for one of his more influential writings, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

As a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, Sanders was active in the civil rights movement. He traveled to Washington in 1963 for the March on Washington, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Sanders has argued that his message of economic justice should resonate with African Americans once they get to know him better, and in recent months he has put a big emphasis on criminal justice reform, another priority for many black voters.

Of course, that all will largely be academic if Sanders doesn’t come out of Iowa and New Hampshire with a full head of steam. To that end, after his Birmingham rally on Monday night, Sanders returns to Iowa on Tuesday for a full day of campaigning.