Can Bernie Sanders win over voters in the South?

Bernie Sanders spoke at Liberty University Monday, as part of a campaign swing to win votes in key southern states. 

(AP Photo/Rob Brown)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders takes a selfie with a woman who attended a rally at the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center in Greensboro, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015.

If there has been one stand-out criticism of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ surging campaign it’s that he rarely leaves his comfort zone. He sought to change that this weekend with a swing through key Southern primary states, culminating in a speech today at a famously conservative Christian university in Virginia.

Senator Sanders, (I) of Vermont, has emerged as a surprise contender for the Democratic nomination with a progressive, populist message, and he now leads early frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the polls in early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire. His support remains weak in the South, however. But Sanders is moving to win voters now in key Southern primary states, speaking to crowds he acknowledges have views mostly at odds with his own.

But Sanders says there are aspects of his platform that should appeal to southern voters, particularly when it comes to income inequality and criminal justice reform.

On Sunday, he spoke near the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, telling a crowd of nearly 9,000  that they should "join the political revolution."

"The American people are sick and tired of establishment politics," he said. "They are sick and tired of establishment economics and they want real change in this country."

With an ethnically diverse array of speakers and supporters on stage with him – but a largely white crowd in front of him – Sanders focused his speech on issues such as lingering institutional racism, including “real” unemployment among black high school graduates, and the disproportionate number of young black people in the criminal justice system. He cited a study that found 69 percent of young black people who drop out of schools end up in jail.

"What we are doing is turning our back on an entire generation of young people," he said.

Among his solutions were an overhaul of the criminal justice system, a federal infrastructure program to create jobs, and free college tuition.

Minority voters in particular are crucial in Southern primaries – black voters cast 37 percent of the ballots in North Carolina’s 2008 Democratic presidential primary, when Barack Obama defeated Mrs. Clinton – and the North Carolina primary has gained even more importance this year as state lawmakers moved it to March, two months earlier than the last presidential election.

In August, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted Sanders at an event in Seattle, Wash., where he was invited to be the keynote speaker. The interruption has proved to be a seminal moment in his campaign. He has since spoken more about criminal justice reform and the aggressive policing of young black men, including at a recent campaign event in Iowa. He has also hired Symone Sanders – a young black criminal justice reform advocate – as his national press secretary.

On Monday, he will seek to diversify his support even more, speaking at a convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late conservative Rev. Jerry Falwell. In March, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas used a convocation there to announce his own run for the presidency.

Sanders told The New York Times that he hopes to find common ground with the Liberty students – who likely disagree with his opinions on social issues like same-sex marriage – on issues such as income inequality, the collapse of the middle class, childhood poverty, and his decades of opposition to trade deals that he blamed for sending American jobs overseas.

"It is very easy for a candidate to speak to people who hold the same views," he said in a statement last month, according to the Times. "It's harder but more important to reach out to others who look at the world differently."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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