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Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont greets supporters in Portsmouth, N.H.TODD HEISLER

On a sunny afternoon last week, hundreds of people began to gather in the city of Keene two hours before Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak. The line stretched from the front door of the Colonial Theatre on Main Street around a corner, down an alleyway and into a nearby parking lot.

Once the crowds filed inside, the speech they heard from Mr. Sanders was anything but uplifting. Mr. Sanders called income inequality in the U.S. "grotesque," decried the price of prescription drugs as an "outrage" and called the earlier conduct of health insurance companies an "obscenity."

His message, delivered in plain language and using specific examples, was simple: The system is rigged in favour of the wealthy. Fixing it requires a "political revolution" – tax the rich, overhaul campaign finance, establish universal health care, institute paid parental leave and eliminate tuition at public universities.

Mr. Sanders, 74, doesn't sound like any other candidate running for president and doesn't want to. Listening to him speak is bracing and confounding, an exercise in expanding the boundaries of what is considered politically possible in the United States. In effect, he seems to ask, why couldn't the U.S. be more like Canada or even Denmark?

That message has turned this senator from Vermont, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, into the unlikeliest of spoilers in the contest for the Democratic nomination. In the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Sanders effectively tied Hillary Clinton, who eked out a tiny margin of victory. In the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9, Mr. Sanders is the favourite to win on the Democratic side.

This is not how it was supposed to turn out. The fact that a grandfather with a shock of white hair and an accent that still bears traces of his native Brooklyn is drawing this kind of fervour is a surprise, even to Mr. Sanders's early fans. And it's not just young people who "feel the Bern," as the unofficial campaign slogan goes. In January, relying on small donations, Mr. Sanders raised more money, $20-million (U.S.), than Ms. Clinton, who raised $15-million. Some 1.3 million individuals have contributed to his campaign, compared to 670,000 for Ms. Clinton.

It remains implausible that Mr. Sanders can win the Democratic nomination. After New Hampshire, which borders his home state of Vermont, the terrain becomes more challenging for him, especially in states like South Carolina, where Ms. Clinton has strong support. Yet his performance so far means the Democratic contest could be longer and more difficult than anyone anticipated.

Contrary to initial appearances, Mr. Sanders is no protest candidate, said Huck Gutman, who served as his chief of staff and now teaches at the University of Vermont. Mr. Sanders "didn't run just to influence the Democratic Party platform, or to be the spokesperson" for a certain set of ideas, said Mr. Gutman. "He ran to win the nomination and to win the presidency."

On Sunday, Gail Machado and Ann Schroeder set out to make that vision a reality. Neither of the two women had ever volunteered for a political campaign before, but here they were, knocking on doors, armed with clipboards, to remind Mr. Sanders's supporters in New Hampshire to vote in Tuesday's primary.

Ms. Schroeder, 67, who lives in Vermont, said her devotion to Mr. Sanders came from long experience: he has represented her state in Washington since 1990, first as Vermont's sole member of the House of Representatives and then, since 2006, as its senator.

For Ms. Machado, 58, the enthusiasm was more recent. "I've been waiting for him my whole life," she said after hearing Mr. Sanders speak at the Colonial Theatre a few days earlier. "I liked Barack Obama too, but I've never been this passionate about a political candidate before."

One point stuck with her: when Mr. Sanders, leaning on the lectern, finger in the air, talked about how he is criticized by both Republicans and Democrats for proposing to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor and the middle class. "I want you all to understand this," he began. "In the last 30 years, there has been a massive redistribution of wealth, from the pockets of working families into the top one-tenth of one per cent." His voice grew louder and emphatic. "Well, I think, maybe, that it's time it goes the other way."

The fight against inequality has animated Mr. Sanders for decades. Born in New York, he grew up in a modest apartment in a family that was always pressed for money. His father, a Polish immigrant whose relatives perished in the Holocaust, was a paint salesman. Later, as a student at the University of Chicago, Mr. Sanders devoted himself to activism. At one point, he was arrested during a protest against racial segregation in the city's public schools and in 1963 attended Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington.

After graduating, he moved to Vermont. His first home was a maple-sugaring shack. To cook, he used a coffee can whose fuel was toilet paper soaked in lighter fluid – a contraption that friends dubbed a "Berno," according to a recent profile in Bloomberg Businessweek. Mr. Sanders was part of a change in Vermont's demographics: between 1970 and 1980, Vermont's population grew 15 per cent, many of them activists retreating from the acrimonious conflicts of the 1960s.

In 1981, running as an independent with a focus on local issues important to working families, Mr. Sanders defied the odds to become mayor of Burlington, Vt. He won by just 10 votes. That earned him the ire of the local Democratic establishment, which meant that Mr. Sanders needed to reach out to Republican city councillors in order to govern, recalled John Franco, now a lawyer in Burlington who was then part of Mr. Sanders's team at City Hall.

Those who underestimate Mr. Sanders do so at their peril, said Mr. Franco. In Vermont, "white conservative men vote for him and they don't like liberals." When Mr. Sanders ran for re-election to the Senate in 2012, he won with 71 per cent of the vote. Before launching his bid for the Democratic nomination, he was the longest-serving independent member of the U.S. Congress in history. He is certainly the only representative in Washington whose office features a plaque honouring Eugene V. Debs, a founder of the American Socialist Party who ran for president five times.

Mr. Sanders's supporters argue that the term "socialist" is no longer as radioactive as it once was in American politics. Before the rally for Mr. Sanders in Keene, Kathryn Mantia, 50, noted that the U.S. system already incorporates "socialist" elements like Medicare and public schools.

Back at the field office for Mr. Sanders on Sunday, Elise Paffrath was helping to train people to knock on doors. Some volunteers were from New Hampshire or neighbouring Vermont, but others had arrived from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. There were even five teenagers from Denmark. Inspired by Mr. Sanders, they were volunteering for the campaign and having conversations with locals about what life in socialist Scandinavia was really like.

Ms. Paffrath, who lives in Vermont, said she can still remember the first time she heard Mr. Sanders speak 22 years ago. "There's nothing polished about him," she said, laughing. "He's so passionate, it just picks you up."

She was happily surprised by how well Mr. Sanders had done and thinks he could win the nomination. "We all believe there's a chance," she said, "Otherwise we wouldn't be doing it."

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