There are no image consultants, no mock stages and no body language coaches.
Instead, Bernie Sanders and his campaign team have a relatively simple plan for his debut appearance in a nationally televised debate: “Let Bernie be Bernie.”
It’s a strategy aides say fueled Sanders’ rise in the Democratic primary campaign, where the often-disheveled, 74-year-old Vermont senator has won the hearts of his party’s base with an unapologetically liberal message. He enters the first Democratic debate as an insurgent challenger to front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, eager to prove that a self-identified democratic socialist could be the strongest nominee the party has to offer.
With limited preparation, Sanders is getting ready to present his policies — free college tuition, a single-payer health care system and a $15-an-hour minimum wage — to the largest audience of his 34-year political career. Aides say he’s generally uninterested in engaging with the other candidates on the stage unless he’s forced into a confrontation by the moderators.
The challenge he faces is how to present his data-laden proposals featured in his campaign speeches while engaging millions of viewers eager to get a more personal glimpse of the candidate.
“You’re looking at a candidate who does not go about attacking people personally,” Sanders said Wednesday. But he added that democracy at its heart is about spelling out differences on policy.
He also needs to introduce his personal story to a wider audience. In recent weeks, Sanders has talked about his background more frequently, highlighting his working-class upbringing in Brooklyn, New York, and student activism at the University of Chicago.
His team is preparing for criticism of his positions on gun control and race relations, two topics that have become central in the primary campaign. Hailing from the rural, mostly white state of Vermont, Sanders has a thinner background on racial issues and voted against some gun control measures in Congress.
Aides aren’t sure how he’ll react to more light-hearted moments. In the Republican debate last month, moderators asked candidates for the Secret Service code name they would use should they win the White House. Sanders tends to cringe when the discussion shifts from policy to the personal.
“He is what he is,” said longtime communications director Michael Briggs. “And the task here, the challenge here, is to bring that out within this format.”
While Sanders has never debated in a nationally televised forum, he’s faced off against candidates from nearly all political ideologies at almost every level of government.
“No matter how much you try to get him in a corner he can always revert to his stump speech,” said Richard Tarrant, a Republican businessman who ran against Sanders in his first Senate race in 2006. “Nobody delivers a message better than Bernie. I just happen to disagree with it.”
Sanders vows to avoid what he considers character attacks and has no plans to raise Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Former debate opponents say Sanders is particularly skilled at staying on message.
“He’s been making these same arguments since he started running in the 1970s — they just flow off his tongue,” said John MacGovern, a Vermont Republican who challenged Sanders in 2012. “The downside for him is that you can almost predict what he’s going to say down to the word — so you can prepare for it.”
Sanders will arrive in Las Vegas late Saturday night and plans to spend two days with his staff going through potential questions. Last week, he asked aides for some briefing books on various domestic and foreign policy issues and reached out to policy experts.
Clinton, in contrast, is coming to the debate after intense strategy sessions and rehearsals with aides playing the roles of her rivals. Former Joe Biden aide Ron Klain and former spokeswoman Karen Dunn are leading the sessions. Clinton’s lawyer, Robert Barnett, is playing Sanders with policy adviser Jake Sullivan as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Clinton’s team wants to reintroduce her to voters and spell out her vision.
But aides are also trying to find a way to undermine Sanders’ momentum without alienating his backers by belittling his proposals. In recent weeks, Clinton has refused to go after Sanders and rarely mentioned him.
Previous criticism of Sanders backfired. After a pro-Clinton super PAC circulated an email suggesting Sanders was similar to Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Sanders’ campaign took umbrage with the comparison and raised $1.2 million in two days.
Clinton said she had no knowledge of the super PAC’s email but stopped short of urging the group to lay off Sanders.
“Let me talk about myself, I’ll let Senator Sanders talk about himself,” she told a New Hampshire voter this week. “We’ll have a chance as we go through the debate to contrast our positions.”
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