ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders drew more than 20,000 people to a pair of a campaign stops in Minnesota on Tuesday, offering a timely reminder of his drawing power among progressive voters across the country.
A crowd of more than 14,539 people packed an exhibit hall and overflow room in this Mississippi River city, according to the venue, gathering just hours after an estimated 6,000 people turned out to hear the Vermont senator about two hours away in Duluth.
“My God, what a turnout,” the Vermont senator said upon taking the stage here to deafening applause and chants of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.”
The stops in Minnesota came just six days before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. Sanders is locked in a close race three with Hillary Clinton, whose once-formidable lead in the polls has evaporated in recent weeks.
In his contest with Clinton, Sanders has argued that the excitement generated by his candidacy would lead to a higher Democratic turnout in the fall, bolstering the party’s chances against the Republican nominee. Clinton, in turn, has argued she stands the best chance among the Democrats of winning in November.
Minnesota is among 11 states that will host primaries or caucuses on March 1, a day that could prove pivotal in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Sanders’s decision to divert from Iowa to a Super Tuesday state underscored a growing confidence by his campaign that he can run a competitive campaign against Clinton well into the nomination calendar. Recent polls have showed Sanders leading in New Hampshire, the second state where voters will weigh in.
“Minnesota is a Super Tuesday state where we have a lot of support and like our chances,” Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said when asked why Sanders had booked the Minnesota stops.
Sanders is scheduled to be in Washington on Wednesday morning, where he has an informal meeting scheduled with President Obama at the White House before returning to Iowa for a Wednesday night rally.
“We were in Iowa this morning,” Briggs said. “We’re going back to Iowa tomorrow. We’ll be in Iowa the rest of the week up until the caucuses. Iowa is clearly the priority.”
Clinton is also planning a brief detour from the campaign trail in Iowa. She is scheduled to travel to the East Coast for fundraisers on Wednesday.
Sanders served up a version of his stump speech here reminiscent of those he gave earlier in the campaign, decrying a “rigged” economy, “corrupt” campaign finance system and “broken” criminal justice program. He pledged to rebuild the middle class through measures such as providing free tuition at public colleges and universities.
The audience included a handful of protesters who chanted “black lives matter” as Sanders reached the midpoint of his speech. He continued his speech without interruption.
The Twin Cities occupy a special place in the arc of the Sanders campaign. In late May, shortly after announcing his presidential bid, Sanders drew more than 3,000 people to an event in Minneapolis. It was the first in a series of eye-popping crowds that generated national buzz around the candidacy of a relatively unknown self-described democratic socialist from Vermont.
Sanders’s summer and fall included rallies that swelled to as large as 28,000 people in Portland.
His crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire -- where Sanders has put in dozens of appearances apiece in recent months -- have been smaller, as he travels from town to town. On balance, however, they have been larger than those of Clinton or former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who is also competing for the nomination.