NEW YORK — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) kicked off his second campaign for president Saturday with a new emphasis on his life story, a strategy designed to help him stand out from his Democratic rivals and President Trump.
In his first campaign rally since entering the Democratic primary last month, Sanders highlighted the financial strains his family faced during his childhood, his father’s flight from poverty and anti-Semitism in Poland and his own involvement in the civil rights movement.
“As we launch this campaign for president, you deserve to know where I came from because family history, obviously, heavily influences the values that we develop as adults,” Sanders told the thousands gathered on the snow-covered campus of Brooklyn College. “Coming from a lower-middle-class family I will never forget about how money — or really lack of money — was always a point of stress in our family.”
Moments later, Sanders bellowed, “I know where I came from!” He sought to contrast his upbringing with Trump’s, saying, he “did not have a father who gave me millions of dollars to build luxury skyscrapers, casinos and country clubs.”
The remarks, which came midway though Sanders’s speech, are the clearest indicator yet that his campaign will make a more personal appeal to Democratic voters than it did in 2016, when Sanders often eschewed autobiography in favor of liberal policy prescriptions.
“We’re still going to lead with the issues that are affecting everyday people’s lives, but we’re going to add in the narrative of his story, which differentiates him,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to Sanders.
The shift also reflects the political realities of 2019: Sanders is running in a crowded and diverse field and his opponents are sharing intimate details about their lives. Trump, too, is campaigning for reelection in large measure on the force of his personality.
On Saturday, Sanders highlighted his Brooklyn roots, noting that he grew up in a 3½-room “rent-controlled apartment.”
“My mother’s dream was that someday our family would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own. That dream was never fulfilled. She died young while we still lived in that rent-controlled apartment.”
He tied his childhood to his campaign’s bigger, more familiar themes, such as Medicare-for-all and tuition-free public colleges. He vowed to enact a federal jobs guarantee as president, and to pursue a comprehensive immigration plan and criminal justice reform.
The campaign estimated that 13,000 people attended the speech. People chanted “We don’t want a wall, we want Medicare-for-all!” as they waited to hear Sanders speak.
Sanders’s strategic recalibration is one of several changes he has made this time around. He has a new campaign manager and a more diverse team of strategists, after taking heat for a staff that was too white and too male in 2016.
Sanders also appears intent on expanding his appeal to nonwhite voters, a vulnerability against Hillary Clinton last time. On Sunday, he will join Clinton in Selma, Ala., for a unity breakfast, then hold a rally in Chicago, where he participated in civil rights protests as a student in the 1960s.
“One of the proudest days of my life was attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Sanders said.
In 2016, Sanders ran as the long-shot candidate with an insurgent liberal campaign. This time, he has widespread name recognition and a base of loyal supporters, who have quickly directed millions of dollars to his campaign in small increments. He is performing well in early state polls.
But there has also been some turbulence. His 2016 consultants recently left the campaign amid signs of strategic disagreements, and he has faced questions about his campaign’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations during the 2016 race.
Moreover, a newer generation of Democrats has stepped up to run for president and many have embraced the policies that Sanders has long advocated. The field includes women and candidates of color with compelling biographies.
“I think he recognizes that he’s got to share the progressive stage with some other candidates,” Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and a Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, said in a recent interview.
Kristen Senior, a 28-year-old accountant who attended Saturday’s rally, said she didn’t think that the other candidates “have been as passionate” as Sanders. “Bernie’s set the Democratic Party platform generations to come, and now everybody else is just following along with the leader,” she said.
Sanders would make history as the nation’s first Jewish president, a distinction he did not highlight in 2016. In his speech Saturday, he underscored the Nazi regime’s impact on his family.
“My father came from Poland at the age of 17, without a nickel in his pocket, without knowing one word of English,” Sanders told the crowd. “He came to the United States to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism.”
Sanders added, “It was a good thing that he came to this country, because virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism.”
As one of the most prominent Democratic candidates, Sanders is expected to face more scrutiny from the public and his rivals than he did last time. Already, Trump and the Republicans are gearing up to use Sanders — the only well-known candidate in the race to identify as a democratic socialist — to paint Democrats as outside the mainstream.
In key ways, Sanders is the same candidate he was in 2016. The policy issues he talks about are the same. His blunt speaking style is largely unchanged, as evidenced by a recent CNN town hall and other high-profile televised appearances.
But on Saturday, he sought to merge the themes that helped him catapult in the last Democratic primary with the personal touch.
“We want to make a personal connection to make sure people know who Bernie Sanders is,” Rocha said.
David Weigel contributed to this report.