Sanders hammers GOP on inequality during MN speech

Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders addressed a crowd of about 450 people during a morning stop in Rochester, Minn., Thursday, July 2, 2015.
Jim Mone | AP

Updated 1:45 p.m. | Posted 5:44 a.m.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders railed against the nation's income gaps on Thursday, telling a Minnesota crowd that inequality would worsen under the GOP.

"This country is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. But most of our people don't know that. And they don't know that because almost all of that wealth is centered in the hands of a very few people, and that's got to change," he told more than 450 people during a morning stop in Rochester, Minn.

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It was the Vermont senator's second visit to the state since becoming a presidential candidate. In May, some 3,000 people came to hear him speak in Minneapolis.

His Rochester stop is part of a larger strategy to build support in Democratic-leaning states where his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, would otherwise dominate.

Bernie Sanders' supporters applauded.
Supporters applauded and waved signs during a town hall address by Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders in Rochester, Minn.
Jim Mone | AP

Sanders called for universal health care, paid maternity leave and a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour. He also supports a massive government-led jobs program to fix roads and bridges and an expansion of Social Security benefits.

But he focused much of his Thursday speech on income inequality. He said Republican policies aim to widen the gap between the very wealthy and the middle class.

The self-described Democratic socialist is betting that a campaign built around tackling income inequality and other populist messages can overwhelm Hillary Clinton, who's still viewed as the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination.

On Wednesday, Sanders packed the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison, Wis., filling its 10,000 seats to show his bid for the Democratic nomination isn't a longshot.

Sanders told the Rochester crowd that raising the minimum wage and blocking trade agreements that result in lost American jobs would help to close the nation's wealth gaps.

He also said that he would support making college free.

Sanders' views on college tuition appealled to Jackie Buehl, a Golden Valley woman who brought her 6-month-old son with her to the event.

"I hate that I have to think about how much I'm going to have to pay for my son's college, and he can't even crawl yet," said Buehl.

Free college is among the reasons Keenan Shaw of Stewartville, Minn., is supporting Sanders.

With his 14-year-old daughter starting high school next year, he said he worries about paying for her college education.

"Maybe [high school grads] don't come from the wealthiest family, but they have big dreams," he said. "[My daughter] is really smart. She's in the National Junior Honor Society, and she needs opportunity as well."

One recent poll shows Sanders is gaining on Clinton in Iowa, a key primary state.

While Clinton is Sanders' chief opponent, he never mentioned her name in Rochester and instead positioned himself against Republicans.

Clinton's presence permeated the Sanders rally, though.

Shaw said he likes Hillary Clinton, but worries her ties to Wall Street are too tight to do anything about income inequality.

And Mike Engel of Kenyon, Minn., said Clinton has too much baggage from her husband's presidency and her time in public office to get his vote.

Does Engel think Sanders can beat Clinton in the presidential primary?

"This reminds me so much of 2008," he said. "The two things I heard the most then were 'Who the heck is Barack Obama?' and 'He doesn't have a chance.' I'm hearing those same things this year, and I don't believe them this time, either."

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs isn't sold on Sanders' viability as the Democratic nominee. He said Sanders is running to define the debate, and pull Clinton further to the left.

"That's not necessarily bad news for Hillary Clinton. She wants a little drama on the Democratic side in order to drive press attention," Jacobs said. "Being challenged and having a debate is a good recipe for beginning to charge up the Democratic faithful who need to be in fighting form when 2016 comes around."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.