WASHINGTON (AP) — If October proved a pivotal month for Hillary Rodham Clinton, November may be a make-or-break stretch for Bernie Sanders in his quest to topple his well-known Democratic rival.
After filling arenas with fervent supporters over the summer, Sanders now faces a series of hurdles: He is trying to present sharp policy contrasts with Clinton without ceding the high road and going negative. He's planning a big speech to explain what he means by democratic socialism, a label that makes some Democrats uncomfortable but captures his political philosophy. And he wants to prove to Democrats he could go the distance.
"The campaign right now is really at a crossroads," Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal said. "People want to win, and I think the biggest problem for Sanders at this point is convincing the Democratic and progressive communities that it's not just about raising the issues."
The importance of the coming weeks has not been lost on the Vermont independent senator and his aides, who have switched to a more aggressive critique of Clinton's record since her strong performance during the first debate. Sanders has coupled that with a series of daytime and late night TV interviews to show a softer side of his personality even as popular culture plays up his cantankerous edge — as when Larry David spoofed him on "Saturday Night Live."
His team is coming out with its first television ads early next month, giving voters a fuller look at his biography.
Sanders is competitive with Clinton in the first contests of Iowa and New Hampshire, and his fundraising has been stronger than expected — more than $40 million raised, mostly online. He's still drawing large crowds; a college forum at George Mason University in Virginia on Wednesday filled a small field house with 1,700 students, as people at 300 colleges watched online.
He's trying to expand his coalition beyond white liberals, college students and working-class supporters. But he has a major deficit with black voters who are crucial in South Carolina, which follows New Hampshire on the calendar, and among Latinos who are influential in Nevada, the fourth contest, suggesting he'll need the first two states to provide him with a sling-shot. Sanders has a past in the civil rights movement but a political career rooted in mostly white Vermont.
"We've got to begin to build bridges to people now, sooner rather than later," said Tad Devine, Sanders' senior adviser. "But a lot of what we're hoping to do will be premised on early success in Iowa and New Hampshire."
Clinton was helped by a fortuitous sequence of events in October after struggling for months to address her use of a private email system at the State Department. Then the former secretary of state performed well in the first Democratic debate, smiling when Sanders quipped that the nation wasn't interested in her "damn emails."
When Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not run, it eliminated a competitor. And she withstood a daylong grilling by a Republican-led congressional committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks.
In the debate, Clinton seized upon Sanders' comments about people "shouting" about gun control, saying "sometimes when a woman talks, some people think it's shouting." Sanders' team interpreted her comments as accusing him of being sexist and readied a series of policy contrasts with Clinton in response.
Before thousands of Iowa Democrats last weekend, Sanders questioned Clinton's slow path to opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and noted that Clinton did not join him in voting against the Iraq war.
Sanders said her recent retelling of the events that led her husband, President Bill Clinton, to sign the Defense of Marriage Act — she called it a "defensive action" — was misleading. And he has pushed back against the notion that Clinton would police Wall Street.
"Who is going to take on the corporate interests and Wall Street?" Sanders asked in an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose. "That's the issue. And if people think Hillary Clinton is that candidate, go for it."
Sanders swears off running negative ads but he says voters should know where the candidates differ.
"We've always thought that voters would accept that kind of dialogue in a campaign," Devine said. "If you're asked about differences you have with your opponent, then you talk about them."
But his willingness to implicitly contrast his record with Clinton's risks crossing the line and turning into a character attack.
"Going after her is a twofold problem," said Joe Trippi, who advised ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "It goes against your brand, and you're attacking someone who is well-liked by her supporters."
The senator expects to address his political philosophy before the next Democratic debate on Nov. 14.
But left unsaid: Is the country ready to elect a quasi-socialist president?
"Through no fault of his own, people don't know what to make of it," said Gina Glantz, manager of Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign. "They probably hear the socialism and not the democratic."
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