Buoyed by polls that show him eclipsing Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders took his campaign before perhaps his most unusual audience yet: the conservative Christian school here founded by Jerry Falwell.
Taking to the stage at a crowded school venue that seats more 10,000, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist made his pitch for economic equality, calling it an issue that can unite even parties that disagree on many other issues, including abortion and gay marriage.
“I came here today because I believe from the bottom of my heart that is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse,” said Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont. He noted from the outset that he supported both a woman’s right to chose abortion and gay marriage.
But, he said, he believed it was possible to find common ground -- chiefly on economic disparity.
"It would be hard for anyone in this room today to make the case that that we are a just society or anything resembling a just society today,” Sanders said. “In America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality.”
His remarks were politely, if not overwhelmingly well received.
“I’m really impressed that Liberty invited him and that he showed up,” said Ann Bryant, 25, a senior at the school. “We do have our differences, but we can still respect each other.”
Still, the loudest and longest applause came when Liberty vice president David Nasser noted that despite Sanders’ calls for helping U.S. workers, a majority at the school believe “children in the womb need our protection.”
Sanders said he didn’t want to be “too provocative,” but added that “too often conservatives say they don’t want government telling me what to do” and that he believes government should not interfere with a woman’s decision.
The stop at the college nestled in the mountains in southwest Virginia comes as Sanders seeks to boost his profile in states beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, where recent polls show Clinton, the onetime presumptive front runner, lagging behind him.
The school is an important venue for Republican candidates looking to boost their profiles with key evangelical Christian voters: Ted Cruz used the same event in March to launch his presidential bid and Jeb Bush delivered the commencement address in May. Ben Carson is scheduled to appear on Nov. 11.