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Sanders' Health, Age On Voters' Minds As Campaign Swings Through Iowa

Bernie Sanders town hall
Henry Epp
Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a town hall focused on issues facing older adults in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Saturday


One month after suffering a heart attack, Sen. Bernie Sanders kept up a brisk campaign schedule in Iowa over the weekend, and tried to ease voters' concerns about his health. Sanders' campaign swing followed the release of a New York Times/Siena College poll on Friday, showing him in second place in the Democratic presidential race in Iowa, three points behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Sanders has a strong base of support in the state, but his physical condition and electability were on the minds of Iowa voters.

"I am feeling – it’s my fifth event of the day – getting a little tired, but you would too," Sanders told a crowd of about 120 people, as he answered an audience question about his health at a town hall in Cedar Rapids Saturday evening. It was, in fact, Sanders' fourth public event of the day.

His Saturday began at a multi-candidate event, billed as a forum on "economic freedom" at Drake University in Des Moines. The event gave several candidates a few minutes to make their pitch to voters.

The crowd of about 200 people gave Sanders a warm reception. But after Sanders' speech, Drake junior Alex Jensen, who’s majoring in health services management, was not impressed.

"I think under Sanders' health plan, a lot of rural hospitals are going to close, and a lot of people are going to be under-served,” Jensen said.

"I think under Sanders' health plan, a lot of rural hospitals are going to close, and a lot of people are going to be under-served" - Alex Jensen, Drake University junior.

Next, Sanders was off to a fish fry at a fairground in Cedar Rapids, nearly two hours east of Des Moines, featuring eight presidential hopefuls. The event was put on by 30-year-old Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who was elected to Congress last year. Among the hundreds of attendees were Linda and Bob Springler, who were seated at a long table, the aroma of fried fish wafting over them.

Linda and Bob Springler
Credit Henry Epp / VPR
Bob and Linda Springler of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, attended a fish fry on Saturday put on by Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer. Both have positive views of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"There are many, many, many good candidates and that’s the hard part," Linda Springler said.

Springler, a community college teacher, said she has not yet made up her mind, but she's leaning toward Warren. So is her husband Bob, though the two both view Sanders favorably.

"Well, I think Bernie, he was the pioneer," Bob Springler said. "He’s the one, in my mind, in 2016, that brought about a revolution. That’s what he calls it, and I think that’s very true."

However, Springler worries that Sanders' and Warren's progressive ideas, like Medicare for All, might not play well in the general election.

Also at the fish fry was Mike Dennis, decked out in full camouflage, and sporting a sticker for another Democratic candidate: Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Despite that sticker, he said he likes Sanders.

"I think he’s a wonderful man," Dennis said, but he said Sanders' age is a weakness. Dennis, a 77-year-old retired union pipefitter from Cedar Rapids, noted he's similar in age to Sanders.

"I’m just glad to wake up tomorrow," said Dennis. "I think you better have a damn good vice president, you know what I mean?"

Throughout the day, voters often brought up Sanders' age and health. However, at each event, Vermont's junior U.S. senator appeared lively, often standing from his seat and raising his voice to make his points.

His next Cedar Rapids appearance came at a forum focused on people with disabilities. Lavonne Miskemen, a Sanders supporter and an employee at the Ramada Hotel where the forum took place, admitted Sanders’ recent heart attack is concerning, but said he deserves a chance.

"I’ve been rooting for him since the last election in 2016, so I feel like the fact that he’s still going, after all of his health and all of the problems, and all of the… letdown that he had in the last one, it shows a lot that he’s still fighting after so long," Miskemen told VPR.

The 2016 contest, and the divisions it created in the Democratic Party, was also on the mind of event attendee Adam Wright.

Adam Wright
Credit Henry Epp / VPR
Adam Wright attended a forum featuring Democratic presidential candidates in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He said he likes Sen. Bernie Sanders' ideas, but thinks he might create divisions in the Democratic party.

"I’m just afraid that if he is our nominee, that that division will sow itself again," Wright said.

A few feet away, actress Rosario Dawson, and her boyfriend, Democratic candidate Sen. Corey Booker, took photos with attendees. Wright, a 41-year-old Cedar Rapids resident, said he’s seen most Democratic candidates multiple times, and was not distracted by the nearby scene. Wright said despite whatever misgivings he has with Sanders, he likes his ideas.

"I think that he’s kind of, in a lot of ways, what a lot of liberals see as their ideal candidate with his ideas, but whether he’s electable or not is something that remains to be seen," Wright said.

Sanders wrapped up the day with his campaign's town hall in a community services center in Cedar Rapids. The talk was ostensibly focused on issues for seniors, but Sanders took questions from the audience on a variety of topics. At one point, he pledged his support to which ever candidate wins the Democratic nomination

"Almost all these Democratic candidates are personal friends of mine. I know them all, and I like them all," Sanders said. "If I am not the nominee, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure one of them becomes president of the United States. I am not here to denigrate any of these people. I do believe I’m the strongest candidate."

"Almost all these Democratic candidates are personal friends of mine. I know them all, and I like them all. If I am not the nominee, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure one of them becomes President of the United States." - Sen. Bernie Sanders.

After the event, Kathy Davis, who came down from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota to visit her daughter, said her family decided to go to the town hall at the last minute. Davis, who's voted for both Democrats and Republicans, said it was the first political event she'd ever attended.

"I thought it was very good, and whether he ends up to be the final candidate or not, I know he'll support one of the other candidates, and to me it’s all about having a change in our presidency," Davis said.

Jackie Clark, a 62-year-old campaign volunteer, said Sanders' recent health scare doesn't concern him. But if his health issues crop up again, Clark said Sanders' movement is larger than the candidate.

"It’s about all of us working together. Yes, I'm concerned if he would pass away, but if he did, then all that he teaches should still go on," Clark said. "I’ll pray that he'll be alright. We all got to go, but no, I'm not worried about that. I believe the good lord is in this movement."

Sanders finished a close second in Iowa four years ago, and he'll need the passion of people like Clark if he's going to beat Sen. Warren and over a dozen other challengers this time around.

Sanders continued his Iowa trip with several more events in the state on Sunday, before heading north Sunday evening to hold a rally with Rep. Ilhan Omar at a 14,000-seat college basketball arena in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Correction 11/4/19 3:43 p.m. A previous version of this story mistakenly said that Cedar Rapids is about two hours west of Des Moines; the city is located east of the state capital. The post has been corrected.

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