As we approach the first 2016 Democratic debate on Tuesday night, all eyes are on the man who was at first dismissed as a lark, but who is now rapidly outgrowing his dark-horse status.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 74, has been gaining momentum over the past few months, building up a sizable celebrity fan base and even edging ahead of front-runner Hillary Clinton in an August poll of New Hampshire voters.
So who is this potential political giant-slayer who suddenly seems to have a decent chance of nabbing the Democratic nomination? Here are five things to know about Bernie Sanders.
1. He’s a socialist.
Although he’s shied away from the “socialist” label in the past due to its negative connotation in the U.S., Sanders has been preaching the pros of socialism for nearly 50 years.
These days, he’s leveraging the label that’s followed him around for his entire political career, positioning himself as Clinton’s main rival in the 2016 race while championing higher wages for middle class workers and free college and health care for all Americans.
In an interview with The Nation in July, he said of his critics, “Do they think I’m afraid of the word ‘socialist’? I’m not afraid of the word.”
2. He doesn’t like to be asked about his hair.
Donald Trump’s infamous comb-over isn’t the only hairdo getting attention in the 2016 election.
When New York Times Magazine reporter Ana Marie Cox asked Sanders whether it’s fair that Clinton’s hair gets scrutinized more than his, he shot back, “I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, okay? Do you have serious questions?”
After the reporter argued that it was a serious question about gender inequality, he added, “When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.”
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3. He’s earned some impressive celebrity endorsements.
Among the many stars backing the 2016 presidential hopeful are Margaret Cho, Danny DeVito, Ben Foster, Zoë Kravitz, Patton Oswalt, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman, Nikki Reed and rapper Killer Mike. Sanders’ campaign announced last month that more than 120 noted writers, musicians, actors and other artists have endorsed him for president.
He may not have Beyoncé’s vote (she supports Clinton) – but he’s still got a pretty solid celebrity support system!
4. He’s a big Pope Francis fan.
Sanders has said that he’s “proud to be Jewish,” although he admits he is “not particularly religious.” But that’s not stopping him from supporting the Roman Catholic Church’s beloved leader.
Sanders has praised Pope Francis as an “incredibly smart and brave” man who is “reaching out to people all over the world with an incredibly strong message of social justice, talking about the grotesque levels of wealth and income inequality.”
“The pope has played an extraordinary role in speaking out on issues of enormous consequence that impact every man, woman and child, not just in our country but on the planet,” Sanders told the Senate in February.
5. He recorded a folk music album in the ’80s.
In 1987, Sanders recorded a five-song folk album called We Shall Overcome, which of course didn’t take long to resurface after he announced his presidential bid in April.
“Big mistake,” Sanders said of the album during a June appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. “So now we have learned that I do bad music,” Sanders told the host. “But I do have other attributes.”
Sanders will show off some of those other attributes Tuesday night when he takes the stage for the Democratic debate. It will be interesting to see how he fares – especially against his leading challenger, Clinton.
One thing’s for sure, Sanders has all but ensured that this election won’t be a one-horse race.