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Sen. Bernie Sanders to run for president? A Ross Perot of the left, perhaps.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only socialist in the Senate, said he'll decide whether to run for president in March. He'd complicate things for Hillary Clinton, at least a bit.

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    Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont speaks during a town hall meeting in Ames, Iowa, earlier this month. Senator Sanders says he’ll decide by March whether to launch a 2016 presidential campaign.
    Charlie Neibergall/AP
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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont has announced that he will wait until March to decide how much of an annoyance to Hillary Rodham Clinton he wants to be.

OK, that might not be exactly how he phrased it. As you might imagine, his declaration to the Associated Press that he might run for president went more like this: "I don't want to do it unless we can win this thing."

At this point, that hope must rank as the longest of long shots. Sanders, after all, is a socialist. As in, a real socialist. Frustrated Americans leaning to the right might throw that word at President Obama like a poison dart, but with Sanders it is actually an accurate description of his political identity.

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He wants to break up the banks, he wants a tax on carbon emissions, and he wants to ditch the North American Free Trade Agreement. None of these agenda items, in and of themselves, is too terribly far outside the Democratic mainstream. Sanders just has an iconoclastic, tea-party-of-the-left way of saying it. Throw in his shock of white hair, and you have an apotheosis of the liberal true believer, Yankee-style.

Hence his potential appeal.

Ms. Clinton is already facing a small revolt on the left ahead of her presumed presidential candidacy. For the most part, that chatter has centered on Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts because she is the shiniest object in the liberal constellation. Very little about Sanders is shiny; it is well-worn, and maybe a tad grumpy at times.

But Warren still has her entire political career ahead of her. She's only two years into her first term as senator. Her political influence, it would seem, is on a strongly upward arc. If she waits four or even eight years to run for president, it's possible – perhaps even likely – that she'll be dealing from a position of greater political strength.

Sanders, meanwhile, is in his mid-70s, which means this could be his one big chance to make a big splash on the national stage. And while 2016 is years away (OK, only two), there are hints that Sanders's brand of (gulp) socialism could indeed make waves.

Issue No. 1 for Sanders is what he calls the collapse of the middle class. His assertion, largely confirmed by statistics, is that America's richest have come out of the Great Recession in fine form, while the rest of the country has stumbled along. In other words, Sanders's 2016 slogan would likely be "A president for the 99 percent," and that could have some traction.

Could he become a Ross Perot of the left, splitting the Democratic vote and gifting the presidency to a Republican – the very same way, in reverse, that Bill Clinton beat President George H.W. Bush in 1992? Like Perot, Sanders could be an effective one-issue candidate who taps into a growing unease among his party's more-ideological wing.

That's probably the best-case scenario for him, frankly, and it still seems a rather long shot. Alternately, he could run as a Democrat and try to move Clinton to the left during the primaries, though he's said he has no interest in doing that. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll has Clinton up 47 percentage points on her nearest Democratic rival, anyway.

Yet with the 2016 race starting to take shape – Jeb Bush making a half-declaration, and Clinton proxies hinting at a decision next month – Sanders might be an intriguing addition.

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