OAKS, Pa. — In his first campaign appearance since a crucial loss in New York’s primary, Bernie Sanders on Thursday dialed back his rhetoric on Hillary Clinton — only to ramp it back up later in the day.
Clinton’s rout in New York Tuesday all-but-crushed any remaining hope for Sanders to find a viable path to the Democratic presidential nomination, and many party members hoped the underdog would now ease off Clinton to avoid harming her general election prospects.
Sanders took the day off Wednesday to “think about… what he wants to say in the weeks ahead,” according to a top aide.
His appearance at a rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, earlier Thursday offered the first glimpse into what he had decided.
While most of speech remained intact, Sanders dropped the most aggressive portions, which mocked Clinton for her lucrative paid speeches to large banks like Goldman Sachs. He didn’t go after her super PACs, nor contributions to her campaign from wealthy donors.
Sanders mentioned Clinton only a handful of times, in each to point out differences between their policy records. He drew contrasts with her record on the minimum wage, Social Security, fracking, trade, and the Iraq War, but didn’t dwell on them.
But any sighs of relief from anxious Democrats were quickly proven premature.
Where Sanders spent time bemoaning both party’s primary process at his first event, Sanders returned to the battle with Clinton, armed with what he interpreted as a show of support for his aspirational ideas from the Vice President Biden, given in a New York Times story published online Thursday.
Sanders read almost verbatim the following section of that story:
He remains neutral in the battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but not between their campaign styles. He’ll take Mr. Sanders’s aspirational approach over Mrs. Clinton’s caution any day.
“I like the idea of saying, ‘We can do much more,’ because we can,” Mr. Biden said in an interview on the Washington-to-Wilmington, Del., Amtrak train he has ridden throughout four decades in national politics.
“I don’t think any Democrat’s ever won saying, ‘We can’t think that big — we ought to really downsize here because it’s not realistic,’ ” he said in a mocking tone. “C’mon man, this is the Democratic Party! I’m not part of the party that says, ‘Well, we can’t do it.’ ”
After reading the passage from the story, Sanders said "I think the vice president, born and raised in Scranton, I think the vice president is exactly right.”
At least three times, he referred back to this story, "thinking back to what the Joe Biden said, thinking big, thinking aspirationally."
"That is what this campaign is about,” Sanders continued, "It is about having the courage to face the reality of American life today, understand that that reality is not always a pleasant reality, but have the courage to take on the special interest who are preventing us from going forward.
This led to a slew of more direct contrasts with Clinton, mirroring what he said just a few hours later, at a rally in Reading, Pennsylvania, when he first reintroduced his rhetoric on Clinton’s transcripts and super PACs.
“When I talk about difference between Secretary Clinton and myself, one of the major differences is precisely how we raise money for our campaigns,” Sanders said. He said Clinton has "several super PACs" that take money from Wall Street, and suggested that she "represent[s] Wall Street" and "the billionaire class."
"In addition to that, as you know, Secretary Clinton has given speeches on Wall Street for $225,000 a speech. Not a bad day’s work," he said, winding the crowd up for what has reliably become one of his best applause lines.
Sanders noted that Clinton has said she would release transcripts of those speeches if "other people will do the same." So he said he was going to release the transcripts of his own speeches to Wall Street right then and there.
"Here you are — you got it?" Sanders said as he waved his empty hands and the audience cheered.
Sanders even added a new shot at Clinton on her support for a proposed tax on soda. "Frankly, I am very surprised that Secretary Clinton would support this regressive tax after pledging not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000. This proposal clearly violates her pledge," he said. "A tax on soda and juice drinks would disproportionately increase taxes on low-income families in Philadelphia."
Asked why the transcript portion of his speech did not appear in Scranton, only to return in the afternoon, Sanders spokesperson Michael Briggs replied, "no reason."
At his final event in Oaks, a rare group of protesters showed up, standing in the back and largely out of sight. While the small group wasn’t disruptive to the senator, they held up "Make America Great Again" hats and a pro-Trump T-shirt.
Twenty-year-old college student Griffen Pasik was in that group that he says was there to peacefully protest.
Pasick told NBC News he thinks Sanders “seems like a decent person,” but said he strongly disagrees with democratic socialism and the candidate’s proposals. While he agrees that "people should be passionate about who leads our country," Pasik said the mood at the rally was hostile toward he and his friend.
"I knew we were going to get a little bit of backlash, but it was a lot worse than any of us anticipated,” Pasik said.
"People were calling us racist, calling us bigots, saying we were sexist,” he recalled. "I probably have more black friends than white friends. I was caught off guard because these people don’t know me."
While described it as a "tap" that didn’t make his friend stumble, Pasik said a young lady hit one of the people in his group in the head.
"This girl hit him in the head for no reason. He wasn’t saying anything, he was a bystander,” Pasik said.