Bernie Sanders steps out of his comfort zone

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. looks over the crowd during a speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virgina 14 September 2015 Image copyright AP

Over the past few months Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has packed arenas for campaign appearances around the country.

His speech before a crowd of 12,000 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Monday was the first such event to start with a Christian rock band and multiple group prayers, however.

This evangelical university in the foothills of central Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains is certainly an unusual venue for the self-proclaimed "democratic socialist" senator from Vermont. Founded in 1971 by the late Christian political activist and television evangelist Jerry Falwell, the school usually hosts religious luminaries and conservative politicians, and made headlines in 2009 for rescinding official recognition for its chapter of the College Democrats because of the party's position on abortion and gay marriage.

Liberty officials extended invitations for presidential candidates from both parties to speak at their weekly convocation, however, and Mr Sanders is the only Democrat so far to accept. Republicans Ben Carson and Scott Walker are scheduled to address the mandatory weekly student meetings later this year.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination at Liberty in March.

Mr Cruz, however, was preaching to ideological soul-mates. Mr Sanders, on the other hand, has admitted that the majority of the students at Liberty "look at the world differently" than he does.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ted Cruz' speech at Liberty University announced his own candidacy

At the very start of his speech Mr Sanders defended his liberal positions and took note that they likely weren't viewed favourably among this audience.

"I understand that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are very important to you. We disagree on those issues. I get that," he said.

"But let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and in fact to the entire world and that maybe, just maybe, we do not disagree on. And maybe, just maybe, we can try work together to resolve them."

The senator then spoke about the central focus of his campaign - income inequality and economic justice - leavened with the occasional biblical verse, a nod to the religious bent of the crowd.

"When we talk about morality, and when we talk about justice, we have to in my view understand that there is no justice when so few have so much, and so many have so little," he said.

It's the kind of line that's usually met with thunderous applause. This time, however, the auditorium was largely silent, save for the fierce cheers from a small knot of non-student supporters packed near the stage.

The Liberty convocation building doubles as its sports arena, and the whole thing had the feeling of visiting fans at a sold-out basketball game celebrating after their team made a game-winning shot.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Support for Sanders was thin on the ground at Liberty - but not non-existent

And so it went for much of the speech. Calls for raising the minimum wage, providing more support for new mothers and making college education free largely fell flat save for approbation from the loyal few.

At the conclusion of his speech, Mr Sanders was presented with several questions from the students.

His response to the first, on racism, garnered polite applause. The second, on abortion, revealed just how large a chasm remained between the candidate and his audience.

What would the senator do to protect "children in the womb", he was asked, to thunderous cheers.

"This is an area in which we disagree," he said. "It is improper for the United States government or state government to tell every women in this country the very painful and difficult choice that she has to make on that issue."

He went on to attack a budget proposed by Republicans in Congress that reduces funding for children's healthcare, college aid and low-income food programmes, while cutting taxes "to the top 2%".

"I don't think that is a moral budget," he said.

The efforts for finding common ground - at least for this morning - were at an end.

After the speech, members of the audience offered mixed reviews.

Image caption Student Star Perez says there was "total disconnect" between Sanders and the students

"I didn't really agree with anything he had to say," said Star Perez, a freshman from Chester, Virginia. She said that while she and Mr Sanders might be able to join together on some basic principles, that's where the "common ground" ends.

"When it comes to what to do with those, and as president what are you going to do to affect the country, how he's going to do those things, that's where there's a total disconnect."

Thomas Howard, a sophomore from Kentucky, gave Mr Sanders credit for making an appearance in a possibly hostile environment. "I thought it was awesome to get another view than what we're used to here," he said.

He added that he strongly disagreed with the senator's views on abortion and healthcare, however, and couldn't see himself ever supporting his candidacy.

Image caption Thomas Howard, another student, liked that Sanders showed up, but doesn't agree with him

On the social networking site Yik Yak, which made headlines when Liberty University students offered snide comments during Mr Cruz's speech, the comments were often sharper.

"If you don't like being poor, work to become rich," wrote one commenter. "That's what we call the American Dream, and it's what makes America great."

"Saw a guy with a Bernie shirt on my way to class today," posted another. "Took everything in me not to punch him. Lord give me strength to hold back."

Bethany Dupre, who received her master's degree in counselling from Liberty University in June, said she was disappointed in the reception given to Mr Sanders from the student body.

"It sounded like in this big place there were only 10 of us clapping for him," she said.

Image caption Bethany Dupre said she was disappointed by the reception her fellow students gave Sanders

"I would like to think that a lot of students would go home and do some more research into the issues, but I think a lot of them will just go with the Liberty University pat answer for those questions."

Mr Sanders' speech comes on the heels of the latest round of polls that show him leading in the key early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

And although he still trails Hillary Clinton by double-digit margins in national polls, her support has dropped precipitously over the past few months.

All of this has some analysts wondering if Mr Sanders has a rightful claim to title of frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

It's a development that the 73-year-old Mr Sanders has admitted has caught him a bit off guard.

"Yes, I'm stunned," Mr Sanders said in a recent television interview. He said he didn't think his campaign's ascent would be as dramatic, but added: "Look, we have a message that I believed from day one was going to resonate with the American people."

Mr Sanders' message is definitely resonating with the Democratic voters in places like New Hampshire and Iowa right now.

Winning over the American people, however, will be a much more challenging task. He'll have to talk to, and convince, voters who are not within his natural base of support.

His speech at Liberty University is a step in that direction - but also shows how much work he has yet to do.