Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for selfies at Burlington International Airport Friday on his way to a debate in Des Moines.
Updated at 3:06 p.m.
Sen. Bernie Sanders departed for Des Moines Friday afternoon for the second Democratic debate of the presidential campaign. Accompanied by an entourage of aides and his wife, Jane, the candidate posed gamely for selfies at Burlington International Airport.
After marching in a Veterans Day parade Wednesday in Lebanon, N.H., Sanders holed up in Burlington Thursday to prepare for the debate, according to senior adviser Tad Devine. He reluctantly participated in debate rehearsals, Devine said, with chief of staff Michaeleen Crowell standing in for former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and consultant Mark Longabaugh playing former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley.
"You know Bernie. He's not a guy to sit around and want to sort of playact this thing," Devine said. "I think he'd be happier to go out and campaign, as opposed to this. But he also understands there's a lot of people watching this. It's a big moment in the campaign."
Indeed, the Saturday night debate at Drake University is Sanders’ last chance to engage Clinton directly before the holiday season begins and potential voters tune out. The Democratic candidates’ next encounter, in Manchester, N.H., is scheduled for six days before Christmas.
This weekend’s debate, which is sponsored by CBS News, Twitter and the Des Moines Register, is the first since former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee dropped out of the race — and since Vice President Joe Biden made clear he would not join it. With just three candidates on-stage, Sanders will have plenty of time to deliver his message, but he’ll also likely face plenty of incoming fire — particularly from an increasingly belligerent O’Malley.
Debate moderator John Dickerson, the host of “Face the Nation,” told the Register this week that he hopes to focus on economic issues during the two-hour event, which starts at 9 p.m. Saturday. That should suit Sanders just fine. According to Devine, his candidate plans to remain focused on his core issue of addressing income inequality.
"This isn't, well, let's see how many issues we can cover in two hours. It's really the converse of that," Devine said. "It's, like, how many times can we get back to talking about the heart of the case here, which is that he, better than anybody else, is in a position to do something about the biggest challenge that people feel we face today in terms of our economic future."
File: Grant Halverson/MSNBC
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley and Rachel Maddow at a Democratic candidates forum last week in Rock Hill, S.C.
One key goal Saturday night is for Sanders to inspire potential supporters to take action on his behalf and to contribute to his campaign, Devine said, noting that the candidate spurred “a huge windfall of fundraising” after plugging his campaign website during the first Democratic debate last month in Las Vegas.
According to Devine, Sanders is "not necessarily" going to aggressively engage Clinton, his chief rival, but is prepared to do so if she takes the offensive against him.
"I think if she wants to kind of bring some questions about him and be very tough on him in a way that we felt was unfair — I think the gun issue is an illustration of that — well, then I think he'll be prepared to respond," the strategist said. "If challenged, sure, I think he'll be willing to respond."
After the last debate, Clinton and her allies accused Sanders of sexism over his oft-repeated statement that “all the shouting in the world” would not end gun violence.
“I’ve been told to stop, and I quote, ‘shouting’ about gun violence,” Clinton said a week later. “Well, first of all, I’m not shouting. It’s just [that] when women talk, some people think we’re shouting.”
Devine said Sanders would be prepared to challenge Clinton if she repeats her allegation Saturday night.
"I would say his antennae will be up a little more than it otherwise would have been because he's been through this experience with her on this. If they try to do something like that, I think he would be prepared to engage on it right on the spot," Devine said. "I mean, if she wants to make some allegation about him being a sexist, I think he can talk about his record of supporting women, which is extremely strong."
Seven Days will be on the scene in Iowa this weekend. Read our coverage online and in next week's print edition.