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The Bernie Sanders factor

A small-sample poll in New Hampshire shows Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leading Hillary Clinton by 44 percent to 37 percent just six months before the state's first-in-the-nation 2016 presidential primary. At the same time, Mr. Sanders is drawing huge crowds in cities around the country where he was virtually unknown when he threw his hat in the ring. What's going on?

The poll of only 442 respondents to the Franklin Pierce University survey in conjunction with the Boston Herald allowed for a 4.7 percent margin of error. It was a shocker nonetheless. Eighty percent, however, rated Ms. Clinton favorably, to 76 percent for Mr. Sanders. Vice President Joe Biden, not a declared candidate, got a favorable rating from 79 percent.

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The quick and easy explanation of the Sanders surge is that the former first lady and Obama secretary of state has come off as entitled to the nomination, and has failed so far to win hearts as much as she has campaign funds from wealthy Americans — like her.

Despite her impassioned commitment to improve the economic lot of the American middle class, and her conspicuous efforts early this year to rub elbows with the hoi polloi, an aura of secrecy and untrustworthiness clings to her. It's a hangover from the Bill Clinton scandals era, and now from her handling of her State Department emails.

Hillary's campaign comes across as a slick, impersonal steamroller of the same seeming inevitability that was rolled out in 2008. But that one unexpectedly ran into a people's crusade headed by an unlikely freshman senator from Illinois who also happened to be African-American.

The Clinton machine stalled in the Iowa caucuses then, finishing third behind Barack Obama and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. It briefly bounced back in New Hampshire with a show of heart and grit by her. She made a courageous run of it but was outgunned by the organization and inspirational message of youth and change from Mr. Obama.

Supposedly having learned from that defeat, Hillary regrouped and has set off to change that first image of entitlement and personal distance that had set in as first lady. But she also has amassed considerable wealth along the way with her husband.

She has haplessly described their financial situation on leaving the White House as "dead broke," but she and the former president have amply filled the family coffers with lucrative speech-making and book-writing endeavors.

All this suggests that much of Mr. Sanders' remarkable public appeal from out of nowhere is a manifestation of opposition to, or least uneasiness about, Hillary Clinton. The rollout of her campaign after a long period of undeclared candidacy had a forced and artificial air about it.

As she publicly professed to be weighing the decision to run, the money and the endorsements rolled in. They came particularly from politically active Democratic women mobilizing as "Ready for Hillary," to shatter the gender glass ceiling to national leadership once and for all.

But is the emergence of Bernie Sanders as the anti-Hillary alternative an adequate explanation for the current phenomenon? For a long time, the strong liberal strain in the party of FDR, Truman, JFK and particularly LBJ has champed at the New Democrat moderation of the Clinton years. Now with the party's left wing reasserting itself as progressive and anti-war, Bernie Sanders has emerged as the unlikely heir.

Hillary Clinton's injudicious Senate vote for President George W. Bush's 2002 authorization to invade Iraq, with its calamitous long-term consequences, has been an albatross around her neck with the progressive wing. Mr. Sanders, as a member of the House then, voted against the authorization.

His unrestrained assault on Wall Street banking and investment billionaires is stealing Hillary's thunder in the party's push for income equality, especially in light of the Clintons' cozy association with fat-cats who have given much to their charitable foundation.

Whether being the anti-Hillary candidate will be enough to give this avowed socialist the Democratic presidential nomination remains problematic. But like anti-war Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Mr. Sanders has struck a spark in the old ideological heart of the party; at least enough to make the Ready for Hillary camp pull up its socks and take notice.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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