HANOVER, N.H. >> Bernie Sanders was a hop, skip and a cold dip in the Connecticut River away from his home state of Vermont on Thursday, whipping up a last-minute speech at Dartmouth College that doubled as an endorsement announcement from former U.S. Sen. Paul Kirk of Massachusetts.
He began with this one-two punch: "The simple question is: will the people of New Hampshire stand up, and demand that this country move in a very different direction," Sanders said to a rambunctious crowd. "Demand that we are prepared to take on the greed, and the irresponsibility of corporate America and Wall Street and the billionaires who have wrecked — wreaked havoc — on our people."
"That's what this election is about," the Vermont senator continued. "And if the people in New Hampshire vote on February 9 to take us in a new direction, I believe we have a path toward victory to transform this country."
Sanders' path seems to be solidifying, as fresh poll data out of New Hampshire has Sanders with a sizable lead. In Iowa, he's in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton, and his national poll numbers are also rising.
Sanders gave a modified version of his stump speech Thursday, speaking in depth about issues that resonate with younger voters. Wall Street regulation. Voting rights reforms. Equal pay for women. Free higher education.
"When we make public colleges and universities tuition free, what we are saying is to every kid in sixth grade, what we are saying to every teacher, what we are saying to every parent, is that if those kids study hard, take school seriously, they will be able to get a college education, regardless of the income of their families," Sanders said.
"That is revolutionary, and will transform our society," he added, to applause.
Nearly 1,000 people, many of them Dartmouth students, crammed into Spaulding Auditorium to hear Sanders speak. The campaign also had multiple overflow rooms that carried Sanders' remarks.
Beyond the New Hampshire representation there was also a distinct — and loud — crew of Vermonters who made the journey across the river to see their senator. A number of red Sanders T-shirts from his 2006 Senate election were spotted in the crowd, and huge cheers erupted at any mention of Vermont, or Burlington.
"Sounds like we've got a few Vermonters here," Sanders said after one such reference, smiling.
Vermont Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne, who has publicly endorsed Sanders, was spotted in the audience.
Before the event, Sanders held a news conference to discuss the state of the race, and announce the Kirk endorsement. Kirk, a former DNC chairman, served as a special assistant and confidant to iconic Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. In 2009, after Kennedy died of brain cancer, Kirk was appointed to temporarily fill Kennedy's post. In 2010, Scott Brown won a special Senate election to fill the seat. Elizabeth Warren now fills the post.
Kirk called Sanders a "true patriot," adding that his endorsement was based on Sanders' refusal to run a super PAC and his promise to reform the country's campaign finance system.
"To his great credit, of all the presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders is the one voice speaking consistently, courageously, passionately and credibly about what he and I — and I suspect most Americans — believe, but are unsure what they can do about it," Kirk said. "And that is that the core value of our democracy has been seriously endangered and needs to be renewed by this generation."
Kirk's endorsement is one of the first signs of support from within the Democratic establishment. Kirk, a superdelegate, can also vote for Sanders at the Democratic National Convention in July.
The endorsement came hours after the progressive news magazine The Nation endorsed Sanders, their third presidential backing in the magazine's 150-year history. The previous two endorsements went to Barack Obama in 2008 and Jesse Jackson in 1988.
In explaining their choice, editors at The Nation said Sanders was a champion of people's issues, including raising the minimum wage, reforming police practices and supporting the rights of undocumented immigrants.
"In Bernie Sanders, these movements for greater equality and justice have found an ally and a champion," the editors wrote. "In contrast to the right-wing demagogues who exploit these crises to foment division, the Vermont senator has reached into a proud democratic-socialist tradition to revive the simple but potent notion of solidarity."
After the Kirk endorsement, Sanders responded to fresh criticism from Team Clinton. He defended his most recent ad, which contrasts his record on Wall Street with another "Democratic vision."
While Clinton is not mentioned in the ad, her staffers claimed the ad is "an attack" on the former secretary of state, and therefore breaks Sanders' promise to run a clean campaign.
"There is a vision between those people who fought to deregulate Wall Street, who are very tight with Wall Street, and those of us who have fought very hard against that deregulation and want to break up that bank," Sanders said. "That is what that ad says, and it is clear which side I am on."
The Wall Street ad coincided with the campaign releasing a letter signed by 170 economists and financial experts in support of his proposed financial reforms.
Sanders also responded to Clinton's call for him to make good on his promise to detail his single-payer health plan before the Iowa caucuses, on Feb. 1. Sanders said the plan would be released soon, and countered criticism that it would cost middle class Americans more.
"Instead of making a private insurance premium payment, you are now going to make a Medicare premium payment," Sanders explained. "And what all of the studies indicate, is that that payment, under a Medicare-for-all single-payer program, will be significantly less than middle class families today are paying for health insurance."
Sanders seemed annoyed by reporters' questions around the recent Clinton attacks, instead requesting the media only ask about the Kirk endorsement. But as the race tightens, and the Clinton machine revs up, Sanders seemed to realize he had to answer questions on any topic.
"They are mad at me today, they are mad at me yesterday, they are mad at me tomorrow," Sanders said. "They are going to be mad at me for a long time."