LYNCHBURG, Va. — Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders sought Monday to reach out to a conservative Christian audience, arguing that however stark their differences on social issues, they should agree there is “massive injustice” in the country’s economy.
“It would be hard for anyone in this room to make the case that the United States of America . . . is a just society or anything resembling a just society today,” Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont, told a crowd of nearly 12,000 students and visitors at Liberty University. “There is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.”
After his appearance at a convocation at the school founded by the late evangelist Jerry Falwell, Sanders addressed a rally that drew an estimated 8,000 people and snarled traffic around the Prince William County Fairgrounds. The county is a rapidly diversifying jurisdiction that is home to a large population of black and Latino voters.
Both stops in Virginia on Monday pointed to segments of the electorate that Sanders has yet to excite in large numbers when he is surging in Iowa and New Hampshire polls based largely on his appeal to white liberals. The crowd at the Manassas area rally was largely white, although more diverse than at most of Sanders’s rallies.
The Virginia stops also underscored the importance of the swing state, which could play a role in Sanders’s fight for the Democratic nomination against front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Virginia is among about a dozen states with Super Tuesday primaries, and so far, most prominent Democrats, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have lined up behind Clinton.
Sanders’s advisers think he has the potential to appeal to minority voters as he becomes better known in those communities; they also argue that he will be able to attract some culturally conservative working-class voters, including in Virginia, on the basis of his economic message.
His remarks at the Liberty convocation echoed what he has been saying on the campaign trail. He sprinkled in more talk about morality as well as references to a few Bible verses and quotes from Pope Francis to underscore his arguments.
“There is no justice when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires while, at the same time, the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth,” Sanders said. “How can we talk about morality, about justice, when we turn our backs on the children of our country?”
Sanders acknowledged that he and many in his audience are on opposite sides of issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but he said that “maybe, just maybe” they could find common ground elsewhere.
“I came here today because I believe that it is important for those with different views in our country to engage in civil discourse,” Sanders said, speaking in the same venue where Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) kicked off his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
“There is too much shouting at each other, too much making fun of each other,” Sanders said, prompting an “Amen” from a young woman in the venue, which doubles as Liberty’s basketball arena.
The reaction from students here was largely polite. Some said they found Sanders’s remarks thought-provoking, but few seemed ready to support him politically.
“It’s a great reminder for me that I need to be praying for our country and its leaders,” said Kaylee Breunig, a senior majoring in kinesiology.
Breunig, 21, said she heard “some stuff I agree with and some I don’t.” She liked, for example, Sanders’s concern for hungry children, but she said his views on abortion don’t align with hers.
“I cannot overlook the murder of the babies in the womb,” said Breunig, who came to Liberty from New Jersey.
Ryan Hiepler, a freshman from Southern California who is studying economics and plays on the basketball team, said he shares some of Sanders’s concerns about income inequality. But Hiepler said he thinks some of Sanders’s solutions would hurt the business climate.
“I don’t think he attracted many people in the auditorium, but I think it was still smart for his campaign, because it shows he’s willing to reach out,” said Hiepler, 18.
Students typically attend morning convocations at Liberty three times a week, and attendance is strongly encouraged. The university attempts to book an array of speakers, including the occasional politician. Officials said they have had Democrats speak before but never one seeking the presidential nomination.
Sanders’s rally in the Manassas area — where his speech was interrupted by frequent applause and boisterous chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” — signals the importance of that Washington suburb for the eventual winner of the Democratic nomination.
Prince William County has become Virginia’s true bellwether in general elections. The county has deeply red, wealthy enclaves to the west, an exploding Latino population around Manassas and to the east, and a densely concentrated corridor of black residents along Interstate 95 to the east.
To succeed, a Democratic candidate will have to excite minority voters and boost turnout — something President Obama did as a candidate in 2008 and 2012.
That is a task that Sanders, who represents a state that is 95 percent white, has acknowledged is one of the hurdles facing his campaign.
McAuliffe also managed to drive turnout in Prince William in his 2013 election as governor, and he undoubtedly is working to help Clinton do just that in 2016.
McAuliffe is a close friend of the former secretary of state and her husband, former president Bill Clinton. McAuliffe has also been a record-breaking fundraiser for both and was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
His staff has been officially mum on Sanders’s visit.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.