ON a street corner in downtown Bennington one sunny October morning, congressional candidate Bernard Sanders stands out much like the surrounding red and orange fluorescent-colored autumn foliage. With a wrinkled sports jacket and matted white hair, the former four-term socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt., waves to passing cars and shakes hands with pedestrians. ``Bernie,'' as he is often called, stands out in more ways than just appearance. Unlike other socialist activists, he is out to win, say observers.
``Bernie likes to win,'' says Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont political science professor. ``Most socialist politicians like to lose because the losing process to them shows how corrupt the political process is.''
In this election for Vermont's only seat in the US House of Representatives, Mr. Sanders, who is running as an independent, is faring well against GOP incumbent Peter Smith. A recent poll commissioned by the Rutland Herald shows a dead heat with 37.4 percent favoring Smith, 37 percent favoring Sanders, and 21 percent undecided.
Also running are Democratic candidate Dolores Sandoval and Peter Diamondstone of the Liberty Union Party. Ms. Sandoval, a University of Vermont professor, has drawn little support because of her radical ideas such as the legalization of drugs.
Political analysts say the race boils down to a Smith/Sanders contest about fundamental change vs. the status quo. Both candidates are pro-choice on abortion.
Sanders supports higher taxes for the wealthy, reducing the military budget by 50 percent, and creating a national health-care system. He criticizes Congress, the president, and the major political parties for being ineffective in serving middle- and low-income interests.
``I'd like to go down there [to Washington] and shake up the system and fight for people who don't have money for a change,'' he said at a Bennington elder day-care center.
Mr. Smith, on the other hand, is a moderate one-term Republican. A former Vermont lieutenant governor, he is campaigning on education, the environment, and gun control. He has also drawn support in Congress for his resolution to appoint a savings-and-loan special prosecutor.
Smith is criticized by Vermont gun owners, however, for supporting legislation to ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons after earlier leading them to believe he was against gun control.
Some Vermonters are also put off by the lanky politician's ``preppy'' image; he is a graduate of Princeton University and son of a banking family. Others are just as put off by Sanders, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., who is at times quite abrupt.
``He can be somewhat acerbic. He can be somewhat brusque,'' says Eric Davis, a political science professor at Middlebury College.
Republican Paul Bohne, Bennington's community development director, has doubts about sending a socialist to Washington. ``I don't think he'll be effective,'' he says. ``I don't think a voice in the wilderness is what Vermont needs or what this country needs.''
The Democrats are having their own problems. Without a strong candidate to support, the state Democratic Party is split, with liberals favoring Sanders and conservatives opting for Smith.