Coming off two wins on Saturday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders told a Madison crowd of more than 8,000 that Wisconsin is key to knocking off opponent and front-runner Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential contest.

Sanders, a self-declared Democratic socialist, gave a fiery, hour-long speech to an estimated 8,100 people at the Alliant Energy Center’s Exposition Hall focusing on his populist message of being an independent candidate not beholden to heavy campaign contributors, and who would implement plans aimed at boosting the middle class and minorities.

While Sanders had won Saturday caucuses in Alaska and Washington — with results from Hawaii’s caucus pending — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on solid footing to be the Democratic nominee.

Even so, Sanders said Saturday “now we are coming big time into Wisconsin.”

“This is what momentum is. When we began this campaign, we were at 3 or 4 percent in the polls — 60 points behind Secretary Clinton,” said Sanders. “Don’t let anybody tell you we can’t win the nomination or win the general election. We are going to do both of those things.”

Sanders touted his plans for a Medicare-for-all, single-payer health care system, three months of paid leave for new mothers and fathers and a plan to provide free tuition to all students at public colleges and community colleges.

“Fifty years ago, you had a high school degree and you could go out in this economy and could probably get yourself a damn good job and decent pay,” Sanders said. “The world has changed. The economy has changed. Technology has changed. Today, in many respects, a college degree is the equivalent to what a high school degree was 50 years ago and that is wrong.”

To loud cheers, Sanders said free tuition and allowing graduates with student debt to refinance at the lowest available interest rates are key to improving the economy.

“This is not a radical idea. Don’t let anybody tell you this is a radical idea,” Sanders said.

Sanders on Saturday also blasted Gov. Scott Walker on recent legislation that requires identification to vote, calling him “cowardly.”

“In a time when this country has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country on earth, the idea that Gov. Walker, or any other governor who would make it harder to participate in political process, is beyond comprehension,” Sanders said.

Sanders also poked fun at Republican candidates Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and real estate mogul Donald Trump’s feud, recently illustrated with Cruz calling Trump a “sniveling coward” for making fun of Cruz’s wife’s appearance in a tweet.

“The Republican candidates think elections are about attacking each other’s wives. Or behaving as if they were 10-year-olds in a food fight in a cafeteria,” Sanders said. “These Republicans are not just an embarrassment for the American people, they are an embarrassment for sane Republicans.”

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, one of a number of speakers opening the event, said Sanders was the only presidential candidate who wasn’t beholden to special interests and created policy proposals with middle-class families and workers in mind.

“The (current) agenda includes too many tax breaks for those who exploit workers in this country and abroad,” Soglin said to a cheering crowd. “Let’s get a couple things straight — tax breaks for the rich do not create jobs.”

“Tax breaks for the rich make billionaires wealthier and concentrate their power so that public schools fail, bridges collapse and poison water flows into our homes, schools and our hospitals,” said Soglin, referring to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Substitute teacher Karen Urquidi, 56, said she came to the Madison rally to help figure out whether she wouldultimately support Sanders or Trump, the current GOP front-runner. She said after the rally she still hadn’t made up her mind.

Urquidi said she’s interested in the candidates’ plans to improve the economy, and especially in Sanders’ plan for free college tuition — a proposal that could cost $750 billion over 10 years.

“I’m trying to get a grip on if that’s realistic,” she said of Sanders’ plans. “But the system needs changing, so let’s get with it.”

Lana Laney, 53, of Milton said her 19-year-old son Austin Lapper turned her on to Sanders’ campaign. Laney, a single mother, said Sanders’ free college plan would have greatly helped her son’s search for the right college.

Lapper, a freshman at UW-Milwaukee, would have looked for a college better suited for his major — acting — rather than picking the college that was most affordable, Laney said.

“Tuition is outrageous,” Laney said. “It’s hard for us ... just trying to get him through college. He might have went somewhere more beneficial for his career (if tuition were free).”Urquidi said the tipping point for her in narrowing down her choices to Sanders and Trump was the desire for a candidate that had “true independence.”

“They don’t seem to be bought by special interests,” she said of Sanders and Trump.

Sanders is trailing Clinton in the delegate count, and national political observers view Wisconsin as a potential last stand for his campaign.

Clinton will campaign in Wisconsin on Monday and Tuesday, with events in Madison, Milwaukee, La Crosse and Green Bay. She is expected to talk about her plans to break down barriers that hold Americans back and to encourage state residents to take advantage of early voting, which ends Friday, according to her campaign. Additional details have not yet been announced.Clinton’s daughter Chelsea visited Madison, Milwaukee and Waukesha on Thursday.

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• Caucus results from two states. A3

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