Bernie Sanders made Florida wait until a week before the presidential primary to see him in person.
Absence made his adoring fans’ hearts grow fonder.
They treated the Democrat’s first campaign rally in the state, held Tuesday night in downtown Miami, as a long-awaited rock concert from a touring band — only instead of singing along to songs, they recited Sanders’ words before he could get them out of his mouth. He joked he should let them on stage, perhaps to save his raspy voice.
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“This is a sharp audience,” he said, after they interrupted him for the umpteenth time, at one point getting in the way of his punchline. “You’re about 12 seconds ahead of me!”
It was undeniably raucous. But it likely won’t be enough.
Sanders arrived in Florida a day before Wednesday’s Democratic debate, hosted by Univision at Miami Dade College’s Kendall Campus. He trails rival Hillary Clinton by nearly 26 percentage points in the state, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average. Even though the Florida Democratic primary awards nominating delegates proportionally by congressional district — and not on a winner-take-all basis — Sanders has a significant deficit to make up as Clinton leads the delegate count to date.
Sanders needs to make inroads in particular with Hispanic voters, who have mostly sided with Clinton and who make up 15 percent of Florida’s Democratic electorate. His campaign put him on Miami Spanish-language radio Tuesday — and quickly learned why reaching them can get tricky.
Sanders phoned into Radio Caracol, Miami’s Colombian-American station, from Michigan, one of four states holding Tuesday contests. He promptly got a question about Colombia’s fraught peace talks between the government and armed guerrillas.
“Um,” Sanders began. “I have to tell you that I am not up to date on that issue.”
The negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been under way in Havana for more than three years. Sanders’ opponent, Hillary Clinton, is the former U.S. secretary of state.
Cuban Americans dominate South Florida politics, but they skew largely Republican. When it comes to Democrats, it’s non-Cuban Hispanics — like Colombians — who may swing the vote.
Sanders recovered, though, pivoting to his broader message: “What I will tell you is that I think the United States has not paid anywhere near the kind of attention that it should be paying to Latin America, who are our closest allies.”
The Vermont senator said he’s traveled to “many” countries in the region — though he didn’t mention several past visits to Cuba — and minced no words over Republican front-runner Donald Trump for advocating for the deportation of nearly 11 million people and for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Those are really stupid ideas,” Sanders said, “which I strongly oppose.”
He predicted Hispanics would vote for him over Clinton because Sanders wants to raise the minimum wage, make tuition free at public universities and give immigrants in the country illegally a path to U.S. citizenship.
While Clinton didn’t hold any Florida events Tuesday, her campaign forcefully pushed back at Sanders’ Latino outreach. The two camps held dueling conference calls with reporters trying to out-Hispanic each other. Sanders offered U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores of Nevada. Clinton countered with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and former Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami.
Team Sanders accused Clinton of waffling in 2007 about allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. Team Clinton bashed Sanders’ opposition to a 2007 comprehensive immigration bill. Team Sanders cited the Southern Poverty Law Center. Team Clinton went with the American Civil Liberties Union.
At the rally, Sanders’ audience of several thousand people packed into the James L. Knight Center skewed young and white. But it also included people like Eder Lopez, a 19-year-old who moved to the U.S. from Colombia when he was a boy and can’t vote because he’s not yet a citizen.
“If you actually read his policies, he’s been fighting for every kind of person out there,” said Lopez, a Florida International University finance student who’s been trying to persuade friends and acquaintances to vote for Sanders. “He actually wants to help people naturalize faster.”
Sanders last came to Florida in July, to speak to the National Urban League in Fort Lauderdale. (Clinton’s last public event was in Broward College in October). His campaign opened three mostly volunteer-run offices in Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville on Friday.
That hardly bothered his fervent followers, many of whom stood up for the duration of Sanders’ 70-minute speech as if in the middle of a mosh pit.
On 24 hours’ notice, Sanders packed thousands of people in to the Knight Center. He plans stops Thursday in Kissimmee and Tampa.
“You are a beautiful crowd, you are a loud crowd,” he praised, channeling his inner Trump in more ways than one. He highlighted polls showing him leading Trump in potential one-on-one match-ups and relished in urging voter turnout to be “yoooge.” (Sanders is originally from Brooklyn.)
Sanders hardly veered from his stump speech, which doesn’t touch on immigration reform — a key issue for Hispanics — until 40 minutes in. He dwelled on climate change and on a past visit to “exploited” agricultural workers in Immokalee. And he pressed his case for campaign-finance reform and waging a “political revolution” that didn’t seem to bother anyone hearing him in person in the capital of Latin America’s political exiles.
“Compared to the rest of the candidates out there, he’s the only one with an ounce of character and stands for what the regular man believes in,” said Clif Porter, 50, who lives near Ives Dairy Road.
“Do I think he’ll win?” he added. “I don’t know.”
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.