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In the past year, everything and nothing has changed for Bernie Sanders.

The one-time Democratic dark horse has gradually become a top-tier contender for the presidential nomination, with recent polls in New Hampshire and Iowa showing him neck-and-neck with – or even leading – rival Hillary Clinton.

Yet in his heart and home the Vermont senator remains the same down-to-earth “Bernster” – as his son, Levi, lovingly refers to him – he’s always been. And that much was plain to see when PEOPLE stopped by to visit Sanders and his family at his modest colonial home in Burlington, Vermont, last month.

For much more of PEOPLE’S interview with Bernie Sanders and his family, pick up the new issue, on newsstands Friday

As Sanders’ wife, Jane, reviewed his laundry list of accomplishments for PEOPLE at the kitchen table, the senator let out a deep sigh. “He doesn’t like to talk about himself – or hear about himself,” Jane explains. But his ears perk up moments later when the buzzer of a dryer sounds from the basement.

“That’s my cue!” Sanders says, jumping up to tend to his laundry.

Not that he has much laundry. Jane jokes to PEOPLE of her minimalist husband, “If Bernie has seven sweaters, that’s three too many for him.”

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Adds Heather Titus, one of Jane’s daughters from her first marriage, “If they still sold cars with manual locks and windows, that’s what Bernie would have.”

The 74-year-old Democratic socialist from Brooklyn leads a simple home life indeed. He does his own grocery shopping and grilling, sticking to a diet of mostly meat and vegetables. “He was Paleo before Paleo was a thing,” says Jane’s other daughter, Carina Driscoll.

He also chops his own firewood and can be handy around the house – just not, as Jane puts it, “with a lot of attention to aesthetics.” He once tacked new screening onto a window frame without cutting away the excess, she recalls, “so we had a window with a tutu. And he said, ‘Well, it works!’ ”

Sanders’ bellowing indignation – against income inequality, Wall Street greed and climate change – seems to be working as well, especially among millennials who swell the crowds at rallies drawing tens of thousands.

With voting set to begin in Iowa on Feb. 1, Sanders marvels to PEOPLE, “How far we’ve come is really incredible.”

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