Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd at the State Theatre in Portland on Sunday night. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders rallied in Maine on Sunday for the first time in his 2020 bid to win the state’s backing in the second straight Democratic presidential nominating race, urging supporters to “think big, not small.”

By the looks of the near-capacity State Theatre crowd, the 77-year-old self-proclaimed Democratic socialist, who went from fringe to a standard-bearer in 2016, still has a large following in Maine after easily winning the caucuses three years ago, but much has changed around Sanders’ candidacy.

In 2016, he was the only candidate opposing Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic nominee. This year, the progressive champion is among a field of 20 running for the nomination to face off with President Donald Trump, a Republican, and they have moved closer to his ideology.

He was one of a few big-name Democrats backing a “Medicare for all” push three years ago. By 2017, three other senators running for president co-sponsored his bill on that. Other hopefuls have indicated support for tuition-free college, something he mainstreamed in the party.

During this campaign, he outflanked Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive rival for the nomination, with a proposal to cancel $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. This week, he previewed a plan to cancel another $81 billion in medical debt.

On Sunday, Sanders pitched those plans and others — including one to end cash bail — and asked supporters to lobby U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican whose seat is a national Democratic target in 2020, to back a $15 hourly minimum wage and join his “political revolution.”

“What this campaign is about is demanding that the American people think big, not small,” he said in a speech that ran longer than 45 minutes.

Sanders is fighting for prominence in a field that has been stuck for months well behind former Vice President Joe Biden. He was nearly 12 percentage points behind Biden nationally on Sunday, according to polls aggregated by RealClearPolitics, with Warren less than a point behind him.

He is the second Democrat to hold a large-scale event in Maine after a rally in the same venue less than two weeks ago by Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. A co-chair of Sanders’ campaign held a town-hall event in Portland the same day.

On Sunday, Sanders was introduced by a roster of speakers including Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who was a leader of the Vermont senator’s 2016 campaign, state Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of their eponymous Vermont ice cream company.

Sanjay Tucker, a high school student from Casco said he supported Sanders’ “socialist views” and his “economic views,” praising him for his long-term “consistency.” Sydney Kenna-Moore of Union said while he’s keeping “an open mind” about the field, he’s backing Sanders now.

“He’s got a record of just speaking what he believes no matter what the consequences may be,” Kenna-Moore said.

In a nod to the large field that Sanders faces, Allison Bouchard of Saco said as she was walking up to the State Theatre balcony she didn’t “necessarily think he has a chance” at winning the nomination in a nod to the large field, but that there’s a lot she likes about him.

“I think he’s really good at articulating his ethics, so I find that really refreshing,” Bouchard said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...