Pushing 'bold change,' Sanders lost the Democratic primary but changed the party

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Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders may not bring chaos to the convention in Philadelphia as GOP runner-up Ted Cruz did in Cleveland, but the Vermont senator's influence on the campaign and where Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party stand on issues such as trade and health care will be impossible to miss this week.

Sanders drew tens of thousands of people to his rallies, where he railed against a "rigged" economy and corrupt campaign-finance system that he argued were transforming America into a plutocracy.

In doing so, he energized the Democratic base as only, apparently, a self-described democratic-socialist could. Now the Clinton campaign wants to harness that enthusiasm to generate a strong turnout in November.

Sanders, who endorsed Clinton this month, is scheduled to give a keynote speech Monday, the convention's opening night.

"The American people want bold change in this country," Sanders, 74, said in an interview Friday. "They are tired of seeing almost all their income and wealth going to the top 1 percent" and living in a country that doesn't guarantee health care.

Perhaps the surprise of the campaign, he said, was that "so many people fervently believe that."

Polling indicates the vast majority of Sanders supporters are planning to vote for Clinton, so any protests staged by Sanders and anti-Clinton zealots this week are likely to overstate the party's divisions.

"He ran a remarkable campaign, one of the best campaigns I've ever seen. He has had a real influence on the Democratic Party, on issues like raising the minimum wage, the question of disciplining Wall Street - they're just a whole range of issues where he's had an impact," said Bob Shrum, a Democratic consultant who advised the presidential campaigns of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

Sanders and Clinton, 68, are "not that far apart on issues," Shrum added. "Some of the Bernie people may not want to hear that - the diehards. Although I think most have come around."

In contrast to the rifts at the Republican National Convention last week in Cleveland - where Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was booed for declining to endorse nominee Donald Trump - Sanders "will be a team player," Shrum said.

Sanders "will be the anti-Cruz," he said.

Sanders' speech Monday night will likely show just how far to the left he has pulled Clinton and the party.

Throughout the campaign, Sanders, declaring that health care is a right, advocated for a single-payer system, funded by the government.

Clinton, the former secretary of state, senator from New York, and first lady, slowly moved closer to his position, eventually saying she supported allowing those 55 or older to opt into Medicare. The current threshold is 65. She also renewed her support for the so-called public option, which would expand government-provided health care by allowing it to compete with private insurers in Obamacare's marketplaces.

On higher education, Sanders pushed for tuition-free public colleges. Clinton initially favored only a plan that would allow students to graduate debt-free, but in recent weeks the two camps reached a compromise: free tuition to four-year public colleges and universities for families with income up to $125,000 by 2021, accounting for about 80 percent of Americans.

Sanders also declared victory after the party's platform committee adopted language calling for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, greater than what Clinton had pushed for initially. The current wage floor is $7.25 an hour.

And Clinton is on record opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal she heralded as the "gold standard" while serving as secretary of state, and which Sanders said would be disastrous for American workers.

The question remains whether these victories for Sanders will lead his supporters to back Clinton in the general election. During the primary campaign, he inveighed against "establishment politics," and Clinton embodies much of that image. She has spent the past quarter-century in the public eye.

"My big thing is keeping this political revolution that we've inspired going," said Charles Adkins, 18, a Sanders delegate from Washington State. "I do think that if it does actually come time to unite the party and get behind Secretary Clinton, if she's able and willing to concede certain platform planks, that might be acceptable."

In the interview Friday, Sanders noted that millions of people voted for him in the primary and suggested it was hardly a surprise that some would resist embracing another candidate.

"I would ask all of my supporters to take a look at Clinton's positions on the issues vs. Trump's positions on the issues," Sanders said, mentioning, for example, Clinton's support for appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn the Citizens United decision on campaign finance.

Eighty-five percent of voters who supported Sanders in the primary say they'll vote for Clinton in the general election, according to a Pew Research poll released this month. By the same time period in 2008, just 69 percent of Democrats who voted for Clinton in the primaries said they'd support then-Sen. Barack Obama in the general election against Republican John McCain, according to Pew.

"If you look at polling data, it's clear that Sanders' people are coming around to Clinton faster in fact than Clinton people came around to Obama in 2008," Shrum said. "It does help that Donald Trump is the great unwitting unifier of the Democratic Party."

That said, Clinton could use Sanders' help in convincing his younger supporters to vote for her in November, said Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant.

"She and Obama could appeal to his patriotism: This guy is just so off the charts it's important for him to get involved," he said, adding Sanders could hold rallies in college towns like Madison, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio, to help Clinton in those battleground states.

To that end, Oxman said, "it'll be interesting to see how much they highlight him" at the convention this week, "and not worry about, does it upstage her?"

"You could argue right now he and Obama are by far the two most popular Democrats in the country," Oxman said. "Would you have said that a year ago about a 74-year-old Jewish socialist from Vermont?"

aseidman@phillynews.com

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@AndrewSeidman

Staff writer Samantha Melamed contributed to this article.