BARRE, Vt. – Bernie Sanders (search) jabs at the air, his flushed face a sharp contrast to his unruly white hair. Yet again, he pummels Washington, the Congress and the president.
"The government that we have today in the White House, the House of Representatives with Tom DeLay, the Senate with Bill Frist, is the most right-wing, extremist government, perhaps in the history of the United States," he tells labor activists at a May Day celebration in the century-old Labor Hall.
"Time after time they pass legislation that benefits the rich and the powerful, and they pass legislation that hurts the middle class, working people and low income people."
The crowd roars. They have come to hear this unlikely man who is likely to be the next U.S. senator from the Green Mountain State, and they love what they hear. This is Bernie at his best: one part revivalist preaching, two parts theater, all served up with a biting sarcasm.
It is vintage Bernie — literally. The words and the message have not changed in more than 30 years. Millions of times, he has decried — in a strong Brooklyn accent — what he sees as an outrageous, growing gap between the rich and the poor.
For half of those years, though, Sanders has been part of the Washington he loves to attack.
In his eighth term in the U.S. House, the independent socialist has carved out a career in Congress as a Congress-basher. Now he is setting his sights on the Senate, and everyone agrees he is the man to beat for the seat now held by the retiring Jim Jeffords.
"He is the front-runner. Absolutely," said Del Ali of Research 2000 of Rockville, Md., which has conducted political polls in Vermont for many years. "He has high favorability ratings, high name recognition and lots of money."
This is an astonishing position for a man who spent the 1970s as a political gadfly and the 1980s as the independent mayor of Burlington, a man who seemed destined for disaster when he first arrived in Congress in 1991.
He was the odd man out: an independent in an institution that revolves around the two-party system; a socialist in a chamber dominated by moderates and conservatives; a freshman in a world that favors seniority. His style was abrasive in an institution that rewards collegiality.
Yet somehow — after some bumps at the beginning — he has made it work.
Over the years Democrats who denounced him have accepted him, and he has caucused with their party and voted for its candidates for House leadership. Republicans who ridiculed his socialist philosophy now sign on as occasional co-sponsors of his legislative initiatives.
In 1991, Rep. Barney Frank (search), D-Mass., complained of Sanders' "holier-than-thou attitude, saying in a very loud voice he is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else." Now the two are close allies on the House Financial Services Committee.
"Do I work better with people than I used to? Yeah, I do," said Sanders, who is 63. "That's simply a learning curve, knowing how to reach out, how to put together coalitions, getting to know people in a way perhaps that I now do better than I did before."
An example, he said, was the formation of the Patriot Act Reform Caucus, designed to ensure civil liberties are protected in the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. The caucus will be chaired by Sanders, a Democrat and two Republicans.
Speaking of the two Republican co-chairs, Sanders said, "We disagree on 98 percent of the issues, but it just so happens that on the issue of civil liberties and the USA Patriot Act (search), we have a lot in common."
Sanders remains a socialist, although not a member of the Socialist Party.
"What does it mean to me? I want government to stand up for working people, for the middle class, rather than representing, as is currently the case in the United States, multinational corporations and wealthy people.
"I also believe that as citizens in a democratic society people are entitled to certain inherent rights — and those rights include the right to health care, the right to form a union, the right to breathe good air, the right to send your child to college.
"There is something fundamentally wrong and very dangerous about a society in which so few have so much and so many have so little," he said.
Jim Barnett, the chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, is fervently dedicated to ensuring that Sanders never arrives in the Senate. As often as Sanders uses the word extremist to describe Republican leaders in Washington, Barnett uses it to describe Sanders.
"The Senate race will give Vermonters a new opportunity to more closely scrutinize Bernie Sanders' extremist record in Congress," he said. "Extremism, futility and abrasiveness are not qualities that Vermonters have traditionally looked for in their senators."
Sanders says his greatest value in Congress has been to highlight issues before others even identify them: He notes he was the first congressman to lead a bus tour to Canada to help seniors get cheap prescription drugs and he is proud of his efforts to bring attention to a pension dispute at IBM.
Sanders is certainly one of the most visible congressmen. He is a regular guest on FOX News, especially "The O'Reilly Factor." Once, when he accused FOX of having a conservative slant, host Bill O'Reilly countered by asking, "Congressman, is there any other news organization on this planet that gives you more air time than the Fox News Channel?"
"You have been very generous to me," Sanders acknowledged.
And one of the most anticipated exchanges of any year — for its theater, if nothing else — is Sanders' semiannual grilling of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan when Greenspan appears before the House Financial Services Committee.
He once asked the Fed chief if he gave "one whit of concern for the middle class and working families of this country?"
National Democrats, including former Gov. Howard Dean (search), now the party's chairman, are urging Democrats to support Sanders. Leaders of the Vermont Democratic Party are not rushing to endorse Sanders, though no Democrat has moved to run against him.
His most likely GOP challengers are Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie (search) and Richard Tarrant (search), chairman of IDX, a medical software company. In early May, a poll for WCAX-TV put Sanders ahead of Dubie, 59 percent to 23 percent, and ahead of Tarrant, 62 percent to 18 percent.
That support is evident at the Old Labor Hall in Barre.
"He is as good as they come," says Sue Lucas, a nurse in Morrisville. "He is about everything we believe in."
"He is not afraid to stand up to either party," said Jim Genovesi, a worker for an electric utility in Rutland. "He doesn't seem to be affected by political pressure or lobbyist pressure. He stands his ground."
Sanders' booming voice fills the hall as he nears the end of his speech.
"We know that our opponents have hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars that they put into the political process. We know they control much of the media. We know they have an attack machine that goes from FOX to Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report and all over the place.
"We know that is what they have," his voice thunders.
"But there is one thing they do not have. They do not have ordinary people prepared to knock on doors and organize all over America.
"That is what we have. They have the money. We have the people. And when push comes to shove, the people are going to defeat the money."