Prominent friends and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., say he should cut back on his relentless campaign pace and speak openly about his recent heart attack when he returns to the campaign trail, urging a shift toward a more personal and less hectic campaign than he has run so far.
The comments reflect what supporters describe as a deeply personal decision with big implications for Sanders’s candidacy: how the 78-year-old democratic socialist, viewed by many of his backers as the leader of a movement, should proceed after a health scare that has sidelined him for days and raised questions about whether he can - or should - maintain the punishing demands of a presidential campaign.
“I would be very open about the experience he had,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign who made his pitch to the senator in a brief telephone conversation last week. “I think it can show a resilience, a sense of empathy and a sense of vulnerability.”
Sanders supporters privately acknowledge concern that the heart attack could give voters second thoughts about the candidate, who would be the oldest president in history if elected. In an effort to move beyond the setback, some hope he can seize on the event to transmit a softer side that’s eluded him.
The goal, said Khanna, would be to “make a very human connection.” He said he texted the senator’s wife, Jane Sanders, last week to tell her that this could be Sanders’s “FDR moment,” referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose battle with polio is sometimes said to have contributed to his empathy for the less fortunate.
The sensitivity of dealing with the heart attack has been evident since the episode occurred. The campaign did not immediately disclose the heart attack, initially saying only that Sanders had experienced chest pains and had two stents inserted in an artery.
Advisers and friends also say Sanders should consider easing his breakneck campaign pace. Sanders has been sprinting across the country, holding multiple events per day, maintaining a speed that has surpassed his top rivals.
“If I were giving him advice, I would tell him just slack up a little bit,” said former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who visited Sanders in a Las Vegas hospital last week. “Even if he slacks up a little bit, he’s campaigning more than anybody else.”
Sanders spent Monday recuperating at home in Burlington, Vermont. On a conference call with staff, he reiterated that the movement he has been leading is not about him, a theme he often hits in campaign speeches.
“If there’s anything that this event kind of tells us, it is the importance of what our message is in this campaign. And our message is ‘Us, not me,’ ” Sanders said, according to a person with knowledge of his remarks.
Campaign officials have signaled that he is not expected to return to the trail until the Oct. 15 debate near Columbus, Ohio. That makes the debate a critical event for the campaign, as Sanders will face considerable scrutiny from voters and rivals sizing up his health and vitality.
“Bernie is raring to go, and his campaign staff has been trying to hold him back until the debate,” said Ben Cohen, who co-founded Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and serves as a national co-chair of the campaign. “The plan is for the debate to be his reentry into the race.”
People with knowledge of the situation said there had been a period of uncertainty about the campaign’s future in the immediate aftermath of Sanders’s hospitalization for chest pains last week. The campaign suspended an Iowa ad buy and made reassuring calls to supporters during those first hours.
But in recent days, the campaign has shown determination to move full speed ahead. The Iowa ad touting Sanders will be on the airwaves starting Tuesday.
The campaign rolled out a new policy proposal Monday aimed at curtailing the role of money in politics. It would eliminate big-dollar fundraising for all federal elections, enact a constitutional amendment to declare that campaign contributions are not speech and end corporate contributions to the party conventions.
Surrogates campaigned for Sanders in the key early states over the weekend, a strategy the campaign plans to continue. Cohen said he plans to campaign for Sanders this weekend in New Hampshire.
The campaign is also aggressively calling voters. After establishing a goal of making a million calls in the early primary states over the past 10 days, it beat that goal by 300,000 calls, the campaign said.
Sanders and his allies have also used his heart attack to call attention to his push to enact a Medicare-for-all universal health-care system. They note that while Sanders was fortunate to have access to good doctors and treatment, many Americans do not.
And Sanders has already begun showing a more personal side of himself. When he left the hospital on Friday, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his wife, Jane, smiling and waving. When he returned to Burlington, reporters there noted Sanders saying he was “happy to be home” before walking inside where family was waiting.
On Monday, he and Jane took a walk in the rain, and he joked with reporters he said should get paid more for working in the drizzle.
Early this year, when he launched his second campaign for president, advisers encouraged Sanders to speak about his participation in the civil rights movement and his modest upbringing in Brooklyn. He mentioned those things at early campaign stops. But as time went on, they faded from his stump speeches.
“He’s somewhat reticent to talk about his own … life experiences,” said Cohen. “But I think it’s helpful for him to do that and it’s certainly only a decision that he can make, but I do think this is an opportunity for him to talk.”
Sanders has been trailing former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in many recent polls, sparing him the pressure that can face the front-runner. His Democratic rivals have either wished Sanders well or brushed aside questions about his physical fitness for office. President Donald Trump and his allies have been preoccupied with the impeachment inquiry.
These external events have led some Sanders allies to conclude that he does not have to rush back onto the national stage.
“The next months are going to be dominated by the impeachment inquiry, not the presidential race,” said Khanna. “His volunteers can do a lot of the work and he just needs to focus on recovering.”
In a sign of how the Sanders movement has charged ahead without him on the trail, a video created by a supporter arguing that he’s been criticized unfairly by the media had received 6 million views as of late Monday.
As Sanders recovers, his campaign has taken steps to reassure staffers and supporters, scheduling calls and other outreach to keep allies focused.
“The campaign reached out to me to let me know that he was doing fine. They gave me the details, which made me feel really comfortable,” said Deb Marlin, an Iowa small-business owner who has endorsed Sanders.
Reid recalled spending 30 to 45 minutes with Sanders on Thursday. They reminisced about their work in the Senate and talked about health care, Reid said. As for the next debate, Reid said Sanders ought to take things slowly before then.
“He should take it easy until then,” said Reid. “As far as I understand, that’s what he’s going to do.”
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