FORT WORTH, Texas -- Liz Runnion already plans to cast her ballot for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary election.
Like many gathered Thursday at Sanders' downtown Fort Worth rally, she hopes the 77-year-old will win the party's nomination and go head-to-head with Republican President Donald Trump.
But if he doesn't, Runnion said she hopes Sanders supporters will back the Democrat who wins the party's nomination and put the "Bernie or Bust" mindset to rest.
"They are shooting us in the foot," she said. "If we want to defeat Trump, which they all seem to want to do, why defeat yourself?"
Sanders, who lost the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2016 to Hillary Clinton, on Thursday promoted a political revolution that could take him to the White House on the same day former Vice President Joe Biden said he's also running for president.
"Reach out to friends, neighbors, coworkers," Sanders told the crowd. "Explain to them that they do not have the luxury of not participating in the political process.
"If they want real change ... they've got to stand up and fight back."
As Sanders spoke to the crowd, one man stood on a nearby sidewalk booing him and chanting "Trump, Trump, Trump."
As for Biden's candidacy, Sanders told the media after the rally that he believes Democrats will unite in 2020 behind the party's nominee -- no matter who it is -- to make a difference.
"We are going to see Democrats come together to defeat the most dangerous president ... which is President Trump."
Sanders drew criticism from local Republicans.
"Bernie Sanders represents what the national Democrat Party has become, which is radically left of everything we've ever known," said Jeremy Bradford, executive director of the Tarrant County Republican Party. "With the rise of the Democrat Socialist wing of the DNC, what was once the radical fringe has become mainstream of their party.
"Bernie Sanders and his far-left ideas are too liberal for Texas and too liberal for Tarrant County."
The Sanders campaign said 2,755 people crowded into Burnett Park to see the candidate.
Some there said they are staunch Sanders supporters; others said they are looking at all the Democratic candidates and want to learn as much as they can about all of them.
"The field is wide open," said Mike McClure, a 58-year-old Fort Worth man who attended the rally with his daughter, Michelle Bonilla, and her children. "But he's on the top of the list."
"He's my No. 1 pick," Bonilla said.
Juliet Wyrick, a 61-year-old from Johnson County, said she voted for Sanders in 2016 and she will vote for him again next year.
"I think he can win the Democratic nomination," she said. "There's a lot of good people now, but we need someone tough, like Bernie."
No matter what, Wyrick said she doesn't want to see a repeat of 2016, when the Democratic Party became so divided. "It splits the vote and we lose," she said.
Six protesters stood across the street from Burnett Park before the rally, holding signs stating: "Socialism is oppression" and "Keep TX great."
"We heard Bernie was coming to town so we thought we would come out and welcome him and tell him socialism is not welcome here," said Derrick Wilson, a member of TCU College Republicans.
Anthony Georgiev showed up because he said he disagrees with Sanders' views on gun rights and taxation.
"His values don't match with Texas values," said Georgiev, also a member of TCU's Republican group. "He simply doesn't belong in Texas."
For more than half an hour Thursday, Sanders touched on some of his traditional issues, proposals to provide Medicare for all, raise the minimum wage, improve crumbling infrastructure, make public college tuition free for all and reform the criminal justice system.
To pay for all that, he said he would rescind some Trump tax breaks and tell the top 1% and corporations to "start paying your fair share of taxes."
Sanders also defended his recent comments that Americans should be able to vote, even if they are locked up behind bars.
"I think the right to vote is what being an American citizen is all about," Sanders told the crowd. "If you commit a terrible crime, you are going to pay the price. But that doesn't mean your right to participate in democracy is taken away from you.
"Once you take away someone's right to vote, you are going down a slippery slope."
Said Wilson, one of the protesters: "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of in my life."
Fort Worth's Ashley Lawson said she agrees with Sanders on this point, since her fiance was incarcerated and on probation during the last election, which left him unable to vote.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week reacted to the comment, writing in a tweet: "Bernie Sanders says Boston bomber should be able to vote from prison. Would he extend that to all proven jihadists in American jails? Some inmates might be able to govern the prisons they are locked in. America cannot be taken over by this lunacy."
"Bernie Sanders seems to get more radical by the week," said Christiana Purves, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, in a statement. "With calls to eliminate private health insurance, give health care to illegal immigrants, allow for the government-takeover of key industries and even give terrorists and sex offenders the right to vote from prison, Sanders' socialist schemes would bankrupt Texas and turn back the clock on progress."
Sanders was the third Democratic presidential candidate to campaign in Tarrant County -- one of the country's largest urban conservative strongholds -- in recent weeks, following Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who visited in March, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who spoke earlier this month.
Many Democrats see opportunity in Tarrant after Democrat Beto O'Rourke beat Republican Ted Cruz in Tarrant County by 3,869 votes in November in the election for the U.S. Senate -- and a handful of Republicans were ousted from local offices.
Since Tarrant County has long been seen as a bellwether for Texas, Democrats now believe there's a way to make inroads and potentially help turn the state blue.
"I believe we can and will defeat Donald Trump here in Texas," Sanders said.
Texas is considered a crown jewel for Super Tuesday, when, next year, voters in 10 states head to the primary polls on March 3.
Shelbi Varnell brought her young daughter to see Sanders, who said she "liked it a lot."
"It's nice to hear him step into his power a little more," Varnell said. "It feels like he has more conviction than last time. It's very igniting."
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