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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign stop at the State Historical Museum of Iowa on Monday in Des Moines, Iowa.

CEDAR FALLS, IOWA — A roar of approval filled the packed ballroom on the University of Northern Iowa campus when Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan told a crowd of Bernie Sanders supporters that he would be barnstorming across eastern Iowa to deliver the message that, “Yes! We must stop endless wars!”

The applause was just as loud when Black Hawk County (Iowa) Supervisor Chris Schwartz reminded Saturday's gathering that, almost two decades ago, “It was Bernie Sanders who stood up to George Bush and said no to war.”

The national media has moved on from discussing the prospect that President Donald Trump’s decision to kill a key Iranian general had brought the Middle East to “the brink of war.” But concerns about issues of war and peace — which briefly upended the national debate in early January — continue to influence the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. That’s benefiting Sanders, especially in Iowa.

There’s little question that the senator from Vermont is surging in the state that will hold the first caucuses of the 2020 cycle on Feb. 3. A fresh New York Times/Siena College poll positions Sanders in a clear front-place position in the state, with the support of 25% of those polled, versus 18% for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 17% for former Vice President Joe Biden and 15% for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. That’s a substantial improvement from the Des Moines Register/CNN poll in early January, which gave Sanders a narrow lead over the rest of the field.

You’ll hear plenty of speculation about why Sanders is rising at the point when it matters most. But not enough attention has been paid by pundits at the national level to the resonance of the anti-war message that Sanders delivered in the first weeks of 2020. After the president ordered the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, when many Americans feared the country was careering toward another Middle East war, Sanders delivered an immediate and aggressive anti-war message. Recalling his opposition to past wars, Sanders declared, “I was right about Vietnam. I was right about Iraq. I will do everything in my power to prevent a war with Iran. I apologize to no one.”

He kept reinforcing that message in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states, where he incorporated a more detailed critique of “endless wars” into his stump speech — to such an extent that The Atlantic noted, “Bernie Sanders Has Something New to Talk About: The Iran crisis is giving him a chance to differentiate himself — just in time for the Iowa caucuses.” He did the same in Washington, where he and U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, sponsored the "No War Against Iran Act."

“I firmly believe the reason Bernie has shot to the lead has everything to do with Iran. He was decisive on this. We co-introduced legislation the day after the strike to stop funding for the war. And then went across Iowa hitting the anti-war message,” Khanna said. “Sanders hammered the anti-war message for weeks. He had the great line he started using: instead of spending $1.8 trillion on military budgets, why don’t we use some of those resources to tackle climate change? People tuned in that he had blasted the defense budget.”

Khanna, who has emerged as a leading anti-war voice in Congress and nationally, campaigned for Sanders in Iowa in early January. He says he was stopped by Democrats and independents who made a point of saying how important it was to them that Sanders was delivering a strong rebuke to endless wars.

“It’s just shocking to me that what’s so obvious to explain Bernie's rise is being missed by the media,” Khanna said. “Of course for Bernie, taking that anti-war position was just pure principle. It was so instinctive for him that we needed to issue a statement opposing the assassination and reintroducing legislation to block the funding. He didn’t need a committee. His bold action stemmed from a lifetime of commitment to these issues. And Iowa voters saw this.”

That’s not an uncommon assessment.

“His anti-war position is important to a lot of people. It’s important to me,” said Whitman Cler, a student who was volunteering for Sanders at the University of Northern Iowa event on Saturday.

Schwartz, who serves as Iowa's state director of Americans for Democratic Action in addition to his work as a local elected official, argued, “This country is sick of endless wars, and I think that’s especially true in Iowa. So, yes, of course people are noticing that Bernie is talking about this. Iowa has always had an anti-war streak. There’s a long history of peace activism — of voting for anti-war candidates.”

The state’s caucuses gave a significant boost to George McGovern’s anti-war bid in 1972, and to a number of other anti-war candidates along the way. Perhaps most famously, Iowa was the place where Barack Obama gained traction as a Democratic contender in 2007 and 2008 by emphasizing the fact that he had spoken out against going to war with Iraq in 2002 — when other leading Democrats had backed the war.

Schwartz said he caucused for Obama in 2008 because of the fact that he had opposed the rush to war. And it is one of the reasons why he will caucus for Sanders this year.

“Sanders has credibility as an anti-war candidate. He opposed the Iraq War,” Schwartz said. “People know that, and it matters to them, just as it matters that he is now speaking out against war with Iran.”

Khanna thinks that’s the key. “Anti-war is not just good substance,” he said. “It’s winning politics.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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