LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders kicked off his presidential bid in his birthplace of Brooklyn. As NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben says, the choice is about more than geography.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: At Bernie Sanders' first rally of the 2020 campaign, there were a lot of flashbacks to his 2016 run. There was the central message about combating inequality.
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BERNIE SANDERS: We will no longer tolerate the greed of corporate America and the billionaire class.
KURTZLEBEN: There was that Simon and Garfunkel song from his 2016 campaign ads.
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SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) They've all come to look for America.
KURTZLEBEN: And in at least one case, there was even the exact same campaign gear from four years ago.
REGINA WEISS: And the Bernie sign is from the last time he ran for president. I still have all my Bernie paraphernalia.
KURTZLEBEN: Regina Weiss lives in Brooklyn and came out to the rally with her husband, Todd Friedman. He explained that there's a lot that's new about Sanders' campaign this time. For one, Sanders has entered the race earlier and at a dead sprint.
TODD FRIEDMAN: And when he started last time, few people outside of Vermont knew who he was. And he's got this great organization now. So he's off to a running start because he's had the experience, and people know who he is.
KURTZLEBEN: As of July 2015, more than a month after Sanders entered the last race, Gallup polling showed that more than half of Americans didn't know who he was or had no opinion of him. Now he's considered a frontrunner in a packed primary. Voters now know his name. But Sanders made a point this weekend of making sure people learned much more about him. He dove more deeply into his personal story than he usually did in his last run. And he tied that story tightly to the issue of race, telling about his involvement with protests as a young man.
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SANDERS: And one of the proudest days of my life was attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
SANDERS: Sanders' emphasis on race, in part, reflects a Democratic Party grappling with how to talk about race and how to serve all of its voters. It also reflects Sanders himself confronting one of his campaign's weakest points from 2016. According to one analysis, Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton among black primary voters by 50 points. For example, George Howard supported Clinton in 2016. The state employee, who lives in Queens, says Kamala Harris is his first choice right now. But Sanders has made an impression on Howard.
GEORGE HOWARD: I think that says something about their organization. And someone who's not even ready, necessarily, to support Bernie came out on a snowy day to kind of support Bernie.
KURTZLEBEN: Howard came out with his friend and fellow union member Jose Medina. Medina supported Sanders in 2016 but says the candidate had a lot of room to improve with minorities.
JOSE MEDINA: One thing I think that hurt him last time was he was seen as the crazy, old white man from the maple syrup state, all gooey and good for the white folks.
KURTZLEBEN: Four years ago, Sanders kicked off his campaign in Vermont. To Medina, this year's change in scenery shows that Sanders is serious about reaching out to diverse voters.
MEDINA: I think the fact that he's come down to Brooklyn to open his campaign and talk about his background - I think it's good. It shows that he's just like one of the regular folks. He's not one of those guys from some rarefied state where there are no African-Americans and no Latinos because when I go to, like, places like New Hampshire, I feel like I'm integrating the state.
KURTZLEBEN: Sanders' kickoff weekend continues with a stop in Selma, Ala., for the anniversary of the 1965 Bloody Sunday protest. He will then hold a rally in Chicago, where he went to college and was once arrested for protesting segregation. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Brooklyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.