2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding fundraising dinner on Aug. 9, 2019, in Clear Lake, Iowa.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding fundraising dinner on Aug. 9, 2019, in Clear Lake, Iowa. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Bernie Sanders was riding high on Saturday in Iowa, enjoying his first taste of Iowa front-runner status in the 2020 campaign.

Fresh off an Iowa poll that put the Vermont senator at 20% support in Iowa and a narrow lead, Sanders greeted a crowd in Newton, Iowa, on what he called a "nice Vermont day" - sunny and 19 degrees.

Just three months ago, Sanders was recovering from a heart attack that many expected to slow, if not end, his second presidential run.

"I would not be here asking for your support if I did not have the strength" to win, he told supporters after a speech mostly devoted to Medicare for All. He also took questions on a variety of topics from climate change to the tensions in Iran.

He asked several Iowans about their healthcare plans and how much they pay, and then discussed issues with premiums, co-payments and deductibles - all of which are eliminated in his proposal. The plan would be financed in a "variety of ways," including a 4% tax on income earned after the first $29,000.

"I'm not here to tell you that getting comprehensive healthcare is free," he said.

Sanders had canceled all his Friday events because of a blizzard that prevented Rep. Rashida Tlaib from getting to Newton to introduce him on Saturday. Instead, Derek Eaton, who was Julian Castro's deputy campaign manager before he left the race, did the honors. Castro is backing Warren and stumped for her in Iowa this weekend.

"When Trump says he is for the working people, he is a liar and a fraud. You are not a friend of working people when you attempt to throw 32 million people off the healthcare than they currently have," Sanders said. "You are a liar and we are going to expose that during the general election."

Sanders said his health proposals are "not radical," since presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have backed universal healthcare. "After 100 years of talk, the time is now to finally accomplish it," he said.

The 78-year-old Vermont senator led the pack in the Des Moines Register/CNN poll of Iowa released Friday. Compared with their last poll taken in November, Sanders gained 5 percentage points - more than any candidate. In the fourth quarter he raised $34.5 million, more than $10 million more than Pete Buttigieg, his closest competitor both in the race for money and voter support in Iowa.

Since his "Bernie's Back" rally after his heart attack, Sanders has seen a steady increase in the polls.

"There's just the Bernie factor," J. Ann Selzer, who conducted the Iowa poll, told the Register. "Which is (even) stronger than we saw in the last cycle."

Sanders has been endorsed by three of the four freshman members of Congress known as "the Squad" - Alexandrio Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Tlaib and they have all campaigned for him, with Tlaib expected to join him in Iowa on Saturday.

Eddie Vale, a partner at New Paradigm Strategy Group and former AFL-CIO spokesman, said Sanders is "doing even better now" than before his heart attack. But to win, Vale says, he needs to energize younger voters like former President Barack Obama did in 2008 and be prepared to take hits that come with being the top candidate.

"They're also going to need to be ready for an increased wave of press attention and attacks from other candidates now that they're in the lead," Vale said. "Most of the other candidates have had their turn over the barrel and they're going to now."

As the Iowa poll showed, it's still anyone's race in Iowa. Although Sanders led the pack just outside the margin of error, the other top three candidates - Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden - are within points of each other. The poll also found that Iowans are still overall undecided: 45% said they could be persuaded, 13% don't have a first choice and 2% are unsure.

"Nothing is obviously guaranteed with the top four clustered together and how many people haven't made up their minds yet, but he's definitely in the strongest position he's been in so far to win Iowa in 2016 or 2020," Vale said.

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