Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: 'I am running for president'

Bernie Sanders in His Own Words

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Promising to fight what he deems "obscene levels" of income disparity and a campaign finance system that is a "real disgrace," independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said Wednesday he will run for president as a Democrat.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sanders confirmed his plans to formally join the race Thursday.

The self-described "democratic socialist" enters the race as a robust liberal alternative to Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he pledged to do more than simply raise progressive issues or nudge the former secretary of state to the left in a campaign in which she is heavily favored.

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Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: 'I am running for president'
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during an event in Iowa Falls, Iowa, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. With a week to go until the Iowa caucuses and the Democratic presidential race there in a virtual dead heat, Hillary Clinton and Sanders are mapping out divergent paths toward winning the first votes of the nomination process. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Washington, UNITED STATES: Newly-elected senators meet with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (R), D-NV, in Washington, DC 13 November 2006. From left are: Senator-elect James Webb, D-VA, Senator-elect Bernie Sanders, I-VT, Senator-elect Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, and Reid. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
US Congressman Elliot Engel (L) takes pictures next to US Senator Bernie Sanders after being dressed as Bouale leaders by public notaries of the Kouadioyaokro village, 150 km from Abidjan, 09 November 2008. US Senators Tom Harkin and Bernie Sanders visit comes ahead of a July 2008 certification deadline to ensure cocoa heading to the United States -- the third largest importer of Ivorian cocoa -- has not been produced with child labour. AFP PHOTO/ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - APRIL 25: Potential Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (R) (I-VT) delivers remarks at the South Carolina Democratic Party state convention April 25, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Sanders joined former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Sen. Lincoln Chafee in speaking to the convention. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participates in a 'Don't Trade Our Future' march organized by the group Campaign for America's Future April 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. The event was part of the Populism 2015 Conference which is conducting their conference with the theme 'Building a Movement for People and the Planet.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S., on Wednesday, July 1, 2015. Sanders said he had attracted 200,000 donors as of mid-June and his campaign had raised $8.3 million online through June 17, according to FEC filings by ActBlue, the fundraising platform that he and some other left-leaning candidates and causes use. Photographer: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PORTLAND, ME - JULY 6: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Cross Insurance Arena while campaigning in the Democratic presidential primary. (Photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Supporters hold up signs at a campaign rally for Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S., on Wednesday, July 1, 2015. Sanders said he had attracted 200,000 donors as of mid-June and his campaign had raised $8.3 million online through June 17, according to FEC filings by ActBlue, the fundraising platform that he and some other left-leaning candidates and causes use. Photographer: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PORTLAND, ME - JULY 6: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Cross Insurance Arena while campaigning in the Democratic presidential primary. Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking in Portland. (Photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 18: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to the crowd at the Phoenix Convention Center July 18, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Democratic presidential candidate spoke on his central issues of income inequality, job creation, controlling climate change, quality affordable education and getting big money out of politics, to more than 11,000 people attending. (Photo by Charlie Leight/Getty Images)
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"People should not underestimate me," Sanders said. "I've run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates and, you know, I think the message that has resonated in Vermont is a message that can resonate all over this country."

As he has for months in prospective campaign stops in the early voting states, and throughout his political career, the former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, on Wednesday assailed an economic system that he said has devolved over the past 40 years and eradicated the nation's middle class.

"What we have seen is that while the average person is working longer hours for lower wages, we have seen a huge increase in income and wealth inequality, which is now reaching obscene levels," Sanders told the AP.

Bernie Sanders Experience | InsideGov

"This is a rigged economy, which works for the rich and the powerful, and is not working for ordinary Americans. ... You know, this country just does not belong to a handful of billionaires."

The son of an immigrant from Poland who sold paint for a living in Brooklyn, Sanders has for decades championed working-class Americans. He lost several statewide races in the 1970s before he was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, and went on to represent Vermont in the U.S. House for 16 years before his election to the Senate in 2006.

An independent in the Senate, he caucuses with Democrats in Washington and he is likely to attract some interest from voters who have unsuccessfully sought to draft Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to join the race.

But Sanders rejected the idea his appeal is limited to voters on the left, boldly predicting Wednesday that his message would appeal to both fellow independents and Republicans.

Sanders said he would release "very specific proposals" to raise taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations, as well as offer tuition-free education at all public colleges and universities. He touched on his past opposition to free-trade agreements, his support for heavier regulations of Wall Street and the nation's banking industry, and his vote against the Keystone XL oil pipeline as a preview of his campaign.

"So to me, the question is whose views come closer to representing the vast majority of working people in this country," Sanders said. "And you know what? I think my views do."

The 73-year-old Sanders starts his campaign as an undisputed underdog against Clinton. Sanders said he has known the former first lady, senator from New York and secretary of state for more than two decades. "I respect her and like her," he said.

He noted he has "never run a negative ad in my life," but still drew a distinction with Clinton in the interview, promising to talk "very strongly about the need not to get involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East."

"I voted against the war in Iraq," he said. "Secretary Clinton voted for it when she was in the Senate."

Clinton is hosting a series of fundraisers this week, starting what could be an effort that raises more than $1 billion. Sanders said he will make money and politics a central theme of his campaign, including a call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which he blames for unleashing a torrent of money from wealthy donors into politics.

"What you're looking at here is a real disgrace," he said. "It is an undermining of American democracy.

"But can we raise the hundreds of millions of dollars that we need, primarily through small campaign contributions to run a strong campaign? And I have concluded that I think there is a real chance that we can do that."

Sanders is the first major challenger to enter the race against Clinton, who earlier this month became the first Democrat to formally declare her intention to run for president. He is likely to be joined in the coming months by former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

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