BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — With polls showing him running well in Iowa and New Hampshire, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders took aim at what might be unusual territory for a self-described democratic socialist: the Deep South.
Yet a crowd of more than 5,000 packed into Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, Monday night to hear the Vermont senator, while nearly 1,000 milled outside in freezing temperatures.
"There must be some mistake, I heard Alabama was a conservative state," Sanders said to an enthusiastic welcome.
Sanders said his message of raising the minimum wage, free college tuition and paid family medical leave cuts across regional lines but acknowledged that the work to get that message across was harder in a state like Alabama.
"We've got to go out to our white, working-class friends. We've got to go out to our brothers and sisters and say, 'Stop voting against your own self-interests,'" Sanders said.
"The truth is for the last 40 years in this country, the great middle class, once the envy of the world, has been disappearing," Sanders said. "You guys ready for a radical idea? We are going to create an economy that works for the middle class, not the billionaire class."
The crowd that greeted Sanders appeared largely young, but was mixed in racial composition.
Cassidy Lamb, a 27-year-old artist, waved a sign reading, "Help! I'm a liberal in Alabama," as she cheered on Sanders. She and her husband, a weapons analyst, drove from north Alabama for a chance to hear Sanders.
"No Democrat can do well in the South, but he can move the South in the right direction," Lamb said.
Sanders must make up ground with black voters in Southern states to remain competitive with front-runner Hillary Clinton. During Sunday's debate, Sanders predicted that he would gain support among African-Americans — as he has other voters — as they learn more about his record.
South Carolina votes Feb. 27. Alabama and other southern states vote March 1.
Before his speech, Sanders visited some of the city's poignant and painful sites in the fight for civil rights.
Sanders toured the 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bomb ripped through the side of the church in 1963, killing four young girls. He looked at Jim Crow relics, including segregated water fountains and a Ku Klux Klan robe, at the Civil Rights Institute.
Speaking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Sanders invoked King's legacy but noted that King was working on economic issues when he was assassinated.
Clinton recently visited Alabama on Dec. 1, speaking at the Montgomery church helmed by King during the 1955 bus boycott.
Antonio Davis, 27, stood in the middle of the cheering crowd for Sanders on Monday, but said he had not made up his mind.
"I'm taking in both sides," Davis said.