By Jay Newton-Small
September 15, 2014

(Des Moines, Iowa)It is perhaps telling that the host of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ event Sunday night in Des Moines, Dave Swinton, has just rushed back from the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, where Hillary Clinton made an appearance the same day, flipping red meat and hinting at a run.

The 50-year-old senior pastor plans on caucusing for Clinton if she runs in 2016, and his wife, Shari, couldn’t resist the opportunity to take the whole family out to the event just 30 miles south. Swinton left most of his family behind while former President Bill Clinton was speaking so he could make it back in time to set up for the Sanders event scheduled in the basement of his Des Moines church, Grace United Methodist.

Swinton is curious to hear Sen. Sanders, an Independent, speak. A progressive group Swinton often works with has rented out his church’s basement for the event.

“Hillary seems to be the strongest candidate, and I have a lot of confidence in her leadership,” he says, taking a break from setting up chairs. “I thought her speech today hit all the right notes.”

Swinton’s political leanings show the uphill battle in store for a politician like Sanders in trying to gain traction in the 2016 Democratic primaries, should he decide to challenge the 800-pound shadow gorilla in the race, the former Secretary of State.

At the 37th annual Harkin Steak Fry—where Hillary Clinton received the tacit endorsement of Iowa’s powerful Democratic senator and Steak Fry host Tom Harkin— earlier Sunday afternoon, a crowd of more than 10,000 roared in approval when she hinted that she may just run again.

“Hi, Iowa,” Clinton yelled. “I’m baaaack!”

By contrast, Sanders’ event was a relatively low-key affair attended by more than 450 people–still a decent crowd, considering the next caucuses are more than 16 months away. Most who showed were left-leaning populists who supported John Edwards in 2008 and consider themselves solidly in the anti-Clinton camp.

“I like the issues Bernie’s hitting, his anger, because I’m angry,” says Mark Brooks, 62, an Air Force veteran who believes Clinton is too “corporate” to be a good president. “This isn’t the country I defended,” he adds.

Sanders’ message resounded with Brooks. Sanders noted, “We have more people living in poverty than any other time in the history of the United States of America,” touching on 2008-era Edwards’ populist message on poverty.

“It’s a crying shame!” a man yelled in the audience.

“It is a crying shame,” Sanders replied.

Calling for a new jobs program, investment in education and the public funding of elections, Sanders highlights that economic disparity in America has never been greater.

In his speech, Sanders rattles off figures that point to the unfairness that many of his supporters are most concerned about: that top 25 U.S. hedge fund managers made $24 billion last year, or the equivalent of the annual salaries of 450,000 public school teachers. That Walmart is now the largest employer in America while the Walton family, which owns Walmart, possesses as much wealth as the bottom 40% of all earners in America.

“It’s called indentured servitude!” another man yelled—at the top of Sanders’ speech, the politician encouraged “small-d” democratic participation, or what other candidates might consider heckling.

“Sometimes, it is,” Sanders answered gravely.

Right now, Sanders, who would have to switch parties to run for the Democratic nomination, is Clinton’s only major competition on the progressive left. But that doesn’t mean liberals aren’t hungering for some more competition. Stephen Blobaum, 51, a Des Moines salesman, also caucused for Edwards in 2008. He and his father, Reed Blobaum, 79, came to see Sanders speak and support his fire, but both are holding out hope that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will make a run.

“She’s my girlfriend,” Reed Blobaum says with a cheeky smile. “’We admire what Bernie’s doing, but she’s an accomplisher. She gets things done. And Hillary needs to get done.”

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