PORTLAND, Maine — The 2016 election may be 16 months away, but you wouldn’t know it from the thousands of people who turned out Monday evening to cheer on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.

What was scheduled as a town hall forum had become a full-blown rally by Monday night. Sanders’ speech was delayed by 20 minutes as organizers let in the throngs of people still awaiting entry. Estimates pegged the crowd at 8,000 to 9,000 people.

Sanders, an independent U.S. senator from Vermont and a self-described socialist, delivered a wide-ranging and more than hourlong speech, striking a populist tone to urge supporters to become part of movement against “establishment politics and establishment economics.”

Sanders said his goal was to create a movement in the tradition of the abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights activists and union organizers. “If we want real change, it’s not just electing someone — hopefully me,” he said to laughs. “No one in the White House will have the power to take on Wall Street alone, corporate America alone, the billionaire classes alone. The only way that change takes place is when we develop that strong grass-roots movement, make that political revolution, stand together, and then we bring about change.”

Sanders touted his progressive bona fides, promoting an increased minimum wage, protections for access to abortion and an end to the war on drugs. He railed against trade agreements that saw American jobs moved overseas, and promised to fight for free public college education and universal health care, paid sick time and paid maternity leave. He swore to unequivocally pursue energy policy to fight climate change.

But it was income inequality that Sanders called “the great moral issue of our time.”

“The truth is that America today is the wealthiest country in the history of the world, but most people don’t know that. Most people don’t feel that. Most people don’t see that, because almost all the wealth rests in the hands of a tiny few,” he said. “We are going to send a message to the billionaire class, and that message is: You can’t have it all. You can’t get huge tax breaks when children in America go hungry. You cannot continue sending our jobs to China when millions of people in this country desperately need work.”

Sanders, 73, got his start in electoral politics in Burlington, Vermont, where he was mayor for most of ’80s. He ran successfully as an independent for Congress in 1990 and served in the House of Representatives until 2006, when he first ran for the U.S. Senate. As the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders has railed against Republican efforts to cut taxes for the wealthy while slashing social services such as Medicaid.

Long a darling of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Sanders briefly made national headlines in 2010 when he filibustered President Barack Obama’s extension of the tax cuts passed during George W. Bush’s presidency. The tax cuts were extended, despite Sanders’ more than eight-hour filibuster.

As a presidential candidate, many initially wrote off Sanders as an also-ran. But he has drawn larger than expected crowds at campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire, and raised a respectable $15 million in the second quarter (without accepting any money from political action committees).

He has dubbed his campaign “a political revolution,” an aspirational moniker for sure, but one the crowd in Portland seemed eager to make a reality.

That included Troy Jackson, a former state senator and current Democratic National Committee member from Maine who introduced Sanders to supporters.

In an interview, Jackson said Sanders is the only politician to ever truly inspire. On the progressive issues around which he has built his career, Sanders is “real,” Jackson said.

“You know it’s honest. He’s been talking about it for years,” Jackson said. “That’s what I want in a presidential candidate — somebody who’s willing to speak up to issues that are important for common, everyday, working-class people and not deviate from it once he gets elected. With a track record like he’s got, you know damn well this is not something he’s just saying to get elected.”

Sanders’ appearance in Maine marked the second visit by a presidential contender to the Pine Tree State, after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, turned up in Portland last week to collect an endorsement from Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

With Democratic Party caucuses scheduled for March 6, Maine is an early comer for 2016 presidential politics. Just 16 states have earlier primaries or caucuses this year.

Sanders’ campaign said his early appearance in Maine was the result of local enthusiasm.

Nick Bray and Faith Norton are both 20-year-old students at the University of Maine at Farmington. They drove to Portland together and were among the first people on the floor at the Cross Arena. With “Bernie 2016” placards in hand, they pressed themselves against the stage — as close as they could get to where Sanders would stand.

The two stressed Sanders’ goal of universal, free public college education as one of his chief selling points, but said they were most drawn to his authenticity. It was a sentiment echoed again and again in interviews with the senator’s supporters.

Bray and Norton said they could trust Sanders — something they couldn’t say for the presumed Democratic frontrunner, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“If she ends up being the party’s nominee, she’s going to change her views,” Bray said. “Bernie has his ideas already, and I’d rather put my support behind a candidate who’s going to stick with his positions and not change, like I think Hillary is going to do.”

“You can trust him,” Norton said. “The pattern of politics, he totally breaks free from it.”

Michael Lecomte, a 30-year-old from Portland’s West End, walked the line of supporters that snaked around the building an hour before Sanders took the stage. He gave out handmade pins, and said he never would have registered as a Democrat but for the opportunity to support Sanders in the caucus.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever actually believed what a candidate was saying,” he said. “He is a lot about equality, and the promotion of working and middle-class. The middle class has been disappearing since I’ve been alive.”

While the majority of the crowd already was sold on Sanders, there were some undecideds in the audience as well.

Stuart Bratesman lives in Freeport and was a Vermont resident back when Sanders was a congressman. He said he never would have imagined the man running for president.

“If you had asked me two or three months ago, I would have told you he had a very small chance of being elected,” Bratesman said. “But now, things seem a little different. Time will tell.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...