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Sanders And Perez Try To Unite Democrats Across The Country


You know, it kind of feels like there's a campaign happening here in this country right now. That's because Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Senator Bernie Sanders are stumping in Utah and Arizona today. These are two states that are both solidly Republican but Perez and Sanders are trying to show that Democrats are serious about competing everywhere. But in order to do that, the party needs to heal some pretty raw wounds from 2016.

NPR's Scott Detrow has been on the road with Sanders and Perez. And as he reports, Democrats are having a tough time doing that healing.


SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: It's a Wednesday night in Miami, and things are going pretty well for Democrats. Tom Perez and Bernie Sanders have just revved up a crowd of progressive voters. And Sanders is shaking hands with fans as David Bowie blares. Then...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Over loudspeaker) Bernie would have won.


DETROW: Bernie would have won - a moment that Democratic unity tours are not exactly made for.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Bernie would have won. Bernie would have won.

DETROW: The DJ quickly puts on a new song to drown out the cheer.


JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I've been everywhere, man. I've been everywhere, man.

DETROW: That chorus - I've been everywhere - is fitting because this week, Perez and Sanders probably feel the same way. They're in Maine, Kentucky, Texas, Nebraska, Arizona. The goal is to sell the Democratic Party to people like Melissa Bernardo. She and her friend Karinna are both graduate students.

MELISSA BERNARDO: Karinna does research on immigration and detention centers. And I do research on climate change and the impacts on agriculture.

DETROW: In other words, prime progressive base voters. They both love Bernie Sanders but Bernardo is pretty ambivalent toward the party itself. She's still upset about last year's primary.

BERNARDO: You took someone that had corporate backing and that's what you got. And America was primed for something different. And Bernie and Trump were both something different.

DETROW: The goal of the tour is to tell people like Bernardo that the DNC is on their side. But Bernie Sanders hasn't exactly been showering the Democratic Party with love this week. He said several times that Donald Trump didn't win last year's race, Democrats lost it.

BERNIE SANDERS: Because I think the Democrats have not put forward an agenda that speaks to the needs of people who are in pain.

DETROW: Sanders is convinced the key to success is to push the party to the left. He believes the majority of the country is onboard with progressive policies like a $15 minimum wage and a Medicare-for-all health care plan. And yet, Republicans dominate state and federal government.

SANDERS: How in God's name are they winning elections? And I think the answer to that is the failure of the Democratic Party.

DETROW: So why is Tom Perez traveling across America with someone so critical of the Democratic Party? Because first of all, Perez doesn't completely disagree with Sanders' critiques. Perez also is convinced that by talking directly to the voters that Sanders draws to events, he can start to earn their trust.

TOM PEREZ: So for me, I think the best way to make sure that we remain united is to talk about the issues that people care the most about. And then when you talk about that, you see, wow, we really are in agreement.

DETROW: It seemed to work during Perez's speech in Miami. The crowd would start to murmur for Sanders, then Perez would talk about progressive goals and win big cheers.

PEREZ: (Over loudspeaker) We believe that health care is a right for all and not a privilege for a few.

DETROW: Perez also appears eager to show the base just how angry he is. He's begun to pepper his speeches with curse words.

PEREZ: (Over loudspeaker) Because the Republican leadership doesn't give a [expletive] about people who are suffering.

DETROW: Perez says he's genuinely angry about Trump.

PEREZ: That's Tom Perez speaking from the heart.

DETROW: And maybe anger is the best way to get skeptical progressives on the same page, to try and just rally everyone against Trump.

PEREZ: Donald Trump is a disaster. He's a threat to our democracy. And I think everybody in that room that we were in tonight in Miami and yesterday and the day before and tomorrow and through the weekend understands that.

DETROW: Everyone may understand that but the job in front of Tom Perez is to convince them that the best way to oppose Trump is through the Democratic Party. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Arlington, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELIOT LIPP'S "THE ENTRANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.