WASHINGTON -- On a cold evening, a basement apartment just off Embassy Row is buzzing with eager pitches from the fresh-faced foot soldiers of a 74-year-old socialist senator who's seeking to become the next U.S. president.
"Bernie Sanders is really refreshing," Jose Woss, a 30-year-old volunteer, explains between phone calls.
It might seem like an odd description for a white-haired septuagenarian who is also the longest-serving independent U.S. senator in history. But the self-declared "democratic socialist" has waged an improbable campaign in a country where "socialist" is frequently regarded as a term of derision.
Woss and 16 others are manning a "phone bank," in which volunteers armed with voter-registration records and telephones try to spread their enthusiasm.
"He's just a great voice for some strong progressive causes," Woss says. "Too much money is going toward corporate profits, private prisons, locking up immigrants, wars, defense contractors -- not enough is going to schools, roads, to actual people, teachers, schools. And getting people more access to health care."
Phone banks are a crucial part of any U.S. election campaign, from the presidency down to town-council races. And their importance can't be overlooked in the current presidential race, which has surprised and baffled many pundits.
One of its most startling aspects has been Sanders' battle to secure the Democratic Party's nomination in hopes of succeeding fellow Democrat Barack Obama in the White House.
The formal beginning to the contest for the nomination -- for both Republican and Democratic candidates -- kicks off in Iowa on February 1, followed a week later by New Hampshire.
Sanders is the oldest candidate in the race. His closest Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is 68.
On the Republican side, where the campaigning has at times taken on a circus atmosphere, the oldest candidate is billionaire real-estate developer Donald Trump, who is 69.
"I think the great shock is that the inevitable nominee -- at least that's the way Hillary Clinton has been viewed -- is in fact in an extremely close race with a 74-year-old socialist who has never identified with the Democratic Party until several months ago," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "It's almost unbelievable."
Before the Democratic debate on January 17 -- the last before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests -- national polls showed Clinton's lead over Sanders slipping markedly among primary voters. A New York Times/CBS News survey showed primary voters under 45 supporting Sanders two-to-one over Clinton, a former senator from New York and a secretary of state in the first Obama administration.
The question is whether enthusiasm for Sanders among 18-to-29-year-old voters will match that for Obama in 2008 and 2012, when that age bracket powered America's first black president to solid margins of victory over his opponents, including Clinton in the party primaries.
Many had expected Clinton to be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination this time around. But voters on the left are wary of Clinton's perceived support for Wall Street financial firms and big banks -- and the campaign contributions she has received from them. And one of her strengths in past campaigns -- the historic potential of electing the country's first female president -- appears to have been eclipsed among some voters by the lure of an unabashed left-winger.
Many young and left-leaning voters are embracing Sanders' progressive policy proposals, which include universal health care, higher minimum wages, and free tuition at public universities.
It's a message he's been pushing more or less since he was mayor of Burlington, the largest city in Vermont, which is one of the whitest and most liberal states in the country. That and his rumpled, seemingly unpolished personality have lent an air of authenticity to candidate Sanders.
Support so far for Sanders among young voters represents a shift away from how that group has voted in the past. According to the research center CIRCLE, at the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University near Boston, those young people have mainly chosen Democratic candidates. But that may be because Democratic candidates have frequently been younger than Republicans, the center noted in a recent report.
Non-Whites Not So Enthused
Young people "often defer to older candidates who for one reason or another charm or excite" them, Sabato says. "I think there's enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party because his views are so far to the left, and younger people tend to be more liberal than their elders in the Democratic Party and probably in the population as a whole."
But Dante Chinni, director of the American Communities Project at Michigan State University, suggests Sanders has a huge liability in terms of his appeal to non-white voters.
Sanders has forged his political career in the northern state of Vermont, where more than 94 percent of residents are white. Clinton has long enjoyed strong support among black voters, a legacy due in part to her husband Bill's popularity among black voters when he was president.
"The reason he's is leading in [Iowa and New Hampshire] is because he's doing well with younger voters, and those electorates are largely white," Chinni says. "But when you look at the national numbers,... Hillary Clinton actually leads...among younger voters by a small margin. So once it shifts, and you start taking in differences like race and minorities, the numbers will move."
In 2008, in South Carolina, the first state to hold a primary contest where a substantial proportion of the voters was black, Obama defeated Clinton by a two-to-one margin.
Earlier this month, Clinton praised the sweeping health-care reform law passed in 2010 called the Affordable Care Act, calling it "one of the greatest accomplishments of President Obama, of the Democratic Party, and of our country."
The remark -- to a debate audience on January 16 in South Carolina, whose primary comes on February 27 -- appeared to signal that her strategy to defeat Sanders would include riding on Obama's coattails in an implicit appeal for continuity.
Back at the Sanders phone bank, the 16 or so volunteers are holding laptops on their knees as they struggle to hear over the din in the cramped basement. Some munch popcorn and sip bottled water and try not to trip over one another or the tiny, tired-looking Christmas tree leaning in a hallway corner.
Sanders "is a guy who's talking about things that really matter to a lot of people," says Lela Spielberg, a 30-year-old nursing-school student, "and really taking a serious look at the future in terms of climate change or money in politics."