ST. PAUL, Minn. — “These teleprompters here are not mine,” joked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “I'm going to look past them.”
The winner of the New Hampshire primary was looking out at Minnesota’s top Democratic activists, gathered for the fifth annual Humphrey-Mondale dinner. (Progressives here were ahead of the trend of striking Andrew Jackson’s name from annual fundraisers.) Top donors sat with the state’s governor and Democratic senators; thriftier activists, who had paid $50 for the evening, sat dinner-deprived on bleachers at the back of the room.
The result was some geographical sorting, a room that supported Hillary Clinton at the front and Sanders at the back. “His voice,” grumbled one donor immune from the Bern. “I don't think he’d make it to November.”
But Minnesota, a March 1 caucus state, has become a promising target for Sanders. “It’s gone from possibility to probability,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, the lone Sanders endorser in the state’s congressional delegation.
Each candidate got 30 minutes to deliver a speech, and Sanders used his time to offer a high-flying version of his stump speech. Clinton had a teleprompter, Sanders did not. And instead of pivoting from the developments of the past week, he talked broadly about the revolutionary change that gay leaders, civil rights leaders and labor leaders had brought about.
“Very few Americans believe in the Republican program,” Sanders said. “How many of people do you know that think it makes two-tenths of 1 percent, and then cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? It’s not only that it’s not right — it’s that very few people believe it. Republicans win elections when people become demoralized.”
Sanders gave only a glancing referral to Thursday night's debate and the mounting accusations that he had not been supportive enough of President Obama. "We have got to be honest and admit we have a long, long way to go," he said diplomatically.
Clinton was less diplomatic. At one point, she sounded almost disbelieving that Sanders was the candidate promising to overturn the Citizens United decision and drain big money from politics.
“A little-known fact: Citizens United was about a right-wing attack on me, one of many over the years, an attempt to push back on the views and values I’d espoused," she said, to applause from the front of the room. “On the first day of my campaign, I said we’re going to overturn Citizens United. We will use Supreme Court appointments. And if necessary, I will lead a constitutional amendment.”
Clinton’s incrementalist pitch was resonant: Its Democrats had learned a slow lesson about the victory that can be had by plodding. In 2010, Mark Dayton bucked the tea party wave with a narrow victory in the race for governor. In 2012, his Democratic Farmer Labor Party benefited from the Obama coattails and took the state legislature back. The result was a run of progressive legislation, including a new tax to fund child care and the legalization of gay marriage. All of it happened under a politician whom nobody would accuse of being inspiring.
“Once in a while, a day comes along when we make something big and extraordinary happen all at once,” Clinton said. “But in my experience, that’s not how we make change most of the time. To make change happen over and over again, you’ve got to keep working at it! You’ve got to keep fighting for it day after day after day. And if you get knocked down, you get right back up.”
Clinton, who closed out the evening, stuck around to shake hands and pose for photos. Greg Miller, an electrician who had always supported her and her husband, walked away from the mob with praise for her approach.
“In 1978, Bill Clinton got elected governor of Arkansas and tried to do everything at once,” Miller said. “What happened? He got beat. He came back and he worked through the system. I think there’s a lesson there.”