PLYMOUTH, N.H. — Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders returned to the campaign trail here this weekend facing a new foe beyond his Democratic rivals: current events.
Terrorism and gun violence have dominated the headlines in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks and mass shootings in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino. But the Vermont senator is sticking largely to a script that has nothing to do with either — emphasizing income and wealth inequality instead, the same issues that generated an unexpected groundswell of support for him over the summer.
Sanders’s near-silence on foreign policy and gun control were hard to miss at a time when the 2016 presidential race has come to be dominated by issues of national security and terrorism. They are not easy subjects for him, given a mixed voting record in Congress on gun restrictions and a noninterventionist foreign policy that he has chosen not to make a centerpiece of his campaign.
At a rally Saturday afternoon in Keene, Sanders was nearly 50 minutes into his hour-long stump speech before he turned his attention to international affairs and sought to make the case that the United States doesn’t need a “tough foreign policy” but needs a “smart foreign policy.”
Sanders pledged to destroy the Islamic State but said that the fight against the terrorist organization would need to be led by Muslim nations in the region. “We cannot and should not be trapped in perpetual warfare in the Middle East,” Sanders said.
He made no mention at all during the speech in Keene of proposals to reduce gun violence in the United States.
Sanders’s short shrift to current events over the weekend struck even some of his supporters as out of tune.
“It’s not what he got into the race to talk about, and I think it shows,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “As long as national security, terrorism and gun control are at the front of the agenda, he’s kind of stuck running in place.”
Later Saturday, toward the end of a rally here, Sanders lamented the frequency of mass shootings and ticked off several “common-sense” ideas that he said “could be of some help.” Those included more stringent background checks, a ban on assault weapons and better services for the mentally ill.
But in an interview, Sanders said that while international terrorism and gun violence are important issues, he wasn’t going to let the media set the agenda for his campaign.
“No one is minimizing what ISIS is doing or the gun violence we’re seeing,” Sanders said, “but it can’t be the only issue we’re talking about it. We’ve got families . . . struggling to keep their heads above water. Somebody’s got to be talking about it. I will.”
That’s not always as easy as Sanders might like.
On Friday, he arrived at the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord for a taping of “The Exchange,” a locally produced talk show. The hosts started off by asking him a series of questions on guns and foreign affairs.
It wasn’t until nearly 15 minutes into the show that Sanders was able to make his pitch about the growing gulf between the country’s billionaires and everyone else.
At his rallies, Sanders has far more control over the agenda, and it shows.
At his events Saturday, before turning to foreign policy, he talked about the “corrupting” influence of money on politics, the misplaced priorities of a Congress that provides tax breaks for billionaires while children go hungry, his support for legislation mandating paid family leave, his plan for a $1 trillion jobs program, the need for comprehensive immigration reform, his plan to expand Social Security benefits and his proposal to make public colleges tuition free, among many other issues.
The rallies in both Keene and Plymouth drew more than 1,000 people — impressive turnouts for this point in the election cycle — and Sanders was heartily cheered at every turn.
But in interviews after, even some of his professed supporters acknowledged they were puzzled as to why Sanders didn’t talk more about issues dominating the headlines.
“It’s certainly not where he spends most of his time,” Patrick Miller, 47, a health policy consultant who lives in Campton, N.H., said when asked for his thoughts on Sanders’s remarks on foreign policy.
“I think he is vague on foreign policy,” added Chris Mumford, 60, a real-estate appraiser in Plymouth who said Sanders spoke “the unvarnished truth” on other issues.
Both were seeing Sanders in person for the first time.
Mumford said he has yet to see Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton speak but expected he would be “wowed” by her knowledge of foreign policy. He said he wondered if Sanders was deliberately talking less about the issue in hopes of avoiding the contrast with her.
Mumford also said he would have been “very disappointed” if Sanders had not touched on gun control in Plymouth.
Sanders represents a largely rural state with a strong hunting tradition and relatively few restrictions on firearms, and he has a mixed voting record that includes opposition to the landmark Brady Bill in 1993 and support of legislation in 2005 that shielded gun manufacturers from lawsuits.
During the first debate, Clinton criticized Sanders for not being tough enough on gun control, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has also used the issue to try to gain traction. Sanders’s aides say his rivals are trying to selectively use votes to distort what they contend is actually a strong record in favor of gun control over the years.
As a presidential candidate, Sanders has become increasingly vocal, when asked, about the need to take action.
On Thursday, the day after 14 people were killed in San Bernardino, Sanders’s campaign sent an email to supporters outlining several steps he supports, including new federal gun trafficking laws.
But the email generated more questions about Sanders’s record as well. Among the steps he advocated was funding gun violence studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. News stories soon surfaced saying Sanders had voted against a similar proposal two decades ago as a congressman.
A Sanders spokesman said that Sanders “can’t remember one vote 19 years ago out of more than 10,000 he’s cast, but if the question today is whether he thinks we should find out as much as possible about what causes gun violence, the answer is yes.”