Everybody loves Bernie Sanders – especially top Republican operatives
Se. Bernie Sanders - HBO's Real Time screencap

Republicans are amazed he has landed punches against Hillary Clinton but still harbor doubts he can win: ‘It becomes hard to beat a celebrity without a celebrity’

There is one presidential candidate whom top Republicans are fascinated by. This is a man whose progress fascinates them and whose campaign astonishes them. It’s not a fellow Republican though – not even Donald Trump. It’s Bernie Sanders.

As the unkempt septuagenarian senator has risen in the polls and drawn crowds in the thousands , GOP operatives have cheered him on social media and watched slack-jawed as a self-proclaimed socialist seems able to do more electoral damage to Hillary Clinton than a host of Republicans. Their love for Sanders though doesn’t seem to be motivated by the appeal of his leftwing ideology. Instead, it’s a sense of joy that anyone is able to land punches on the Teflon-like Clinton.

Among top GOP operatives, RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer has repeatedly tweeted pro-Sanders messages about “feeling #thebern” or with slogans like “#gobernie” and writing “I have to favorite” a tweet that noted Sanders’ improvement in the polls.

Colin Reed, the executive director of America Rising, a Republican Super Pac which specializes in opposition research, has also gone out of his way on Twitter to express his wonderment at the crowds that Sanders is attracting and the “Bernie-mania” he is inspiring. Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s top strategist in 2012, even wrote a column proclaiming that Sanders is the real deal.

Related: Why do so many Democrats support Bernie Sanders? | Steve Winkler

The crowds though aren’t what are drawing astonishment – after all, Trump draws huge crowds too. Instead, it’s that after years of Republican efforts to damage Clinton in the aftermath of the 2008 election on everything from the Russia reset to Benghazi to her personal emails, an ex-hippie from Vermont is the only one who can affect her standing with voters.

As well-connected Republican strategist Liz Mair explained to the Guardian, conservatives are excited that Sanders “is exposing Clinton for what many Republicans have long argued she is: a cold, robotic, inauthentic fraud that no one, regardless of ideology, should be comfortable with”.

Jeff Bechdel, the communications director for America Rising, echoed Mair. He noted that “with Bernie, voters are seeing someone who is everything Hillary is not; inauthentic, not seen as trustworthy, overly cautious. With Bernie it’s not that way so you get these big crowds, get him moving up in the polls.” Bechdel also noted both Sanders and fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley weren’t guilty of “blatant hypocrisy” like Clinton.

He accused her of having a double standard on issues like Wall Street and “getting unaccountable money of politics”, where Clinton was not practicing what she preached.

This trend is even stretching to presidential candidates. In a statement last week, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal cast Clinton as a deceitful version of Sanders by saying “while both candidates are socialists, Bernie Sanders is being honest and saying what Hillary will not say”.

However, there still is a sense of pessimism that Sanders will be able to best Clinton in the Democratic primary. As top GOP strategist Rick Wilson pointed out: “I don’t know Bernie can play the role of Barack Obama in 2008 because he’s a 70-something year-old curmudgeon.” He added: “It becomes hard to beat a celebrity without a celebrity.”

Sanders does not have the formidable political organization and ability to attract swaths of new voters that Obama had. But as he surges in the polls, coming within spitting distance of Clinton in New Hampshire and drawing crowds in the thousands, he may well start to meet the definition of celebrity – and Republicans are enjoying every minute.

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