Welcome to the big leagues.
Sen. Bernard Sanders is starting to feel that heat that comes with leading the Democratic presidential race in the key early states, with rivals from both parties slamming him for promoting socialist views that they say are too far left for America.
Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent who describes himself as a socialist but caucuses with the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, has been targeted for being a leftist both by a super PAC allied with rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and by candidates on the Republican presidential debate stage last week.
Correct the Record, a super PAC run by longtime Clinton henchman David Brock, circulated an email highlighting Mr. Sanders’ praise of the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and likening the senator to far-left U.K. politician Jeremy Corbyn, who recently was elected leader of the Labor Party despite having, among other things, called for the abolition of Britain’s military.
At the GOP debate in California, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee both made references to Mr. Sanders’ socialism.
Mr. Jindal, whose low poll numbers relegated him to the early “kid’s table” debate, wondered at Mr. Sanders’ surge in the Democratic race despite his socialist label.
“They have got a socialist that is gaining on Hillary Clinton. Folks, you can’t make that up. A socialist is doing well in the Democratic primary,” he said.
More than the Republican jibes, the attacks from Mrs. Clinton’s allies marked a new phase in the contest between the former secretary of state and Mr. Sanders, who previously had carefully avoided personal attacks on each other.
Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs said they were ready for the fight to escalate.
“We understand this is the big leagues — this is hardball,” said Mr. Briggs. “I wouldn’t say we expected it because we are disappointed. But it is what it is, and we’ll go with it.”
Indeed, Mr. Sanders quickly moved to use the attack to his advantage.
He responded to the super PAC attack with a fundraising email, netting $1.2 million within 48 hours of asking supporters to help him fight back against “ugly, negative campaigning.”
“I hope that sends a very clear message that the American people are sick and tired of politics as usual and negative campaigning,” Mr. Sanders said in an email thanking his supporters.
Mr. Sanders, who is beating Mrs. Clinton in the polls in early-voting states Iowa and New Hampshire, has refused to accept support from super PACs or donations from corporate moneymen. He used the attack by Correct the Record to draw a stark contrast between the political revolution he wants to lead and the establishment candidacy of Mrs. Clinton.
“Frankly what the Clinton Super PAC is doing is nothing new. It’s the same-old, same-old negative politics that has gone on for years: throw mud and hope some of it sticks,” wrote Mr. Sanders.
“We are fighting for a different kind of politics. Instead of hurling dishonest or out-of-context charges, we are trying to run an issue-oriented campaign — focusing on the most important concerns of the American people,” he said.
The email attack by Correct the Record highlighted some of the more inflammatory comments by Mr. Corbyn, such as his remark that the killing of Osama bin Laden was “a tragedy” because he wasn’t afforded a trial, and his pledge to invite his “friends” from the terrorist group Hezbollah to discuss Middle East peace.
It pointed to a newspaper op-ed penned by Mr. Corbyn that characterized the West as the villain in confrontations with Russia, saying the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “attempt to encircle Russia is one of the big threats of our time.”
The pro-Clinton group then cited “similarities” between Mr. Corbyn and Mr. Sanders, including Mr. Sanders’ proposal to end the U.S. nuclear weapons program and his opposition to NATO expansion into former Soviet countries.
As for his connection to Mr. Chavez, Mr. Sanders in 2006 helped negotiate a deal with Venezuela’s national oil company to provide discounted heating oil to low-income families in Vermont.
Mr. Sanders has never shied from his socialist leanings and mounted a presidential run with a liberal agenda, including calling for steeper taxation on the wealthy and breaking the grip of billionaires on the political system.
The Sanders agenda prompted Mrs. Clinton to move further left with her campaign. But just days before Correct the Record attacked Mr. Sanders for being too far left, Mrs. Clinton embraced her centrist reputation.
“I get accused of being kind of moderate and center. I plead guilty,” Mrs. Clinton said at a campaign event in Ohio.
The Clinton campaign declined to comment on the attacks by Correct the Record, which usually focuses on countering criticism of Mrs. Clinton.
“They must be really worried that Sanders has a chance,” Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group, an independent polling and consulting firm in Washington, said shortly after the email was circulated last week.
He warned that the Clinton campaign was risking blowback.
“Attacks on him could prompt Sanders to hit back, and she is a very, very juicy target. If he speaks out about her emails and the Clinton Foundation, he could inflict real damage,” he said.
“The [other] risk, of course,” Mr. Valliere said of attacking Mr. Sanders, “is that Clinton will turn off a big chunk of his followers, who will sit at home in the general election.”
Mr. Sanders also fired back at Republicans in defense of socialism, and said the U.S. could take some lessons from European countries with socialist policies on health care and college education.
“I know for Gov. Jindal, it is easy to try to frighten people, but I think if you look at some of the real success stories, there’s, in many of these countries, there’s a lot that we can learn,” the senator said on CNN. “Yes, the United States of America is a much larger and much more complicated society, a much more diverse society, but there are things we can learn from other governments which have programs that represent working people.”
However, in an appearance the next day on “The Late Show” on CBS, Mr. Sanders eased away from the socialist label when prodded by host Stephen Colbert about a potential President Sanders turning America into a Scandinavian country with not just socialism but “pickled herring and a high suicide rate.”
Mr. Sanders said he preferred the term “progressive.”