Will 'Gruff' Sanders Emerge as Stakes Get Higher?

Sanders waves off a question from a reporter leaving the Senate subway. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

If recent polling is any indication, New Hampshire Democratic primary voters view Sen. Bernard Sanders as the most likable candidate in the Democratic field by a wide margin — a fact helping to boost Sanders to front-runner status in the crucial Granite State primary.  

But "likable" isn't the first word to come to mind for  some current and former senators and staffers who have worked with the self-described Democratic Socialist on Capitol Hill. They portrayed a serious man who grows frustrated with questions he finds frivolous.  

Tuesday night's debate between Democratic presidential candidates would expose Sanders' ideas and personality to his largest audience yet.

"He's gruff in private," Sen. John McCain said in an interview with CQ Roll Call last week, chuckling as he saw the irony in someone like himself, who has the reputation of being grumpy, characterizing someone else that way.

McCain, who worked with Sanders on a Veterans Affairs package in 2014, joked that he "is — unlike me — a little bit temperamental." 

Yet while Sanders' "gruff" exterior is well-known around the Capitol, colleagues describe him as a serious legislator, one who tries to find areas of compromise when possible and delivers on his promises.  

While McCain said that behind closed doors, Sanders doesn't become "Ms. Congeniality," he gave Sanders the highest compliment a senator can give another.  

"His word is good, and so when we reach agreements, those agreements were hard and fast," McCain said.  

Current Democratic colleagues were equally complimentary, describing a man who, while unwavering in his outspoken and long-held views, is quick to find areas of compromise when possible.  

"Bernie is the real deal. He's who he is," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who is poised to ascend to the role of Democratic leader when Sen. Harry Reid retires in 2016, told CQ Roll Call. "He's who he is here, and he's the same person on the campaign trail, and for that he gets the respect of the senators, of his colleagues, because this is no artifice."  

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin called Sanders "unshakable" in his core values, and said there were votes he knew Sanders would never side with Democrats on. But he added that Sanders has been a valuable colleague in many ways.  

"He's not one of these wild-eyed ideologues who is just so caught up that he's not in touch with the real world," Durbin said. "There are things which are absolutely inviolable to him, they just mean the world to him. You wouldn't have to guess too hard to figure those out. When it comes to basic progressive values and his belief in programs like Social Security, he's been a good person to work with in the Senate."  

While he's drawn tens of thousands of people to rallies, Democratic strategists say Sanders is one of the least likely candidates to take questions from crowds or appear on rope lines with voters. Many Democratic strategists say that's by design, as he's known to shoot down questions he feels are unimportant.  

"In presidential campaigns, no matter how disciplined you are, who you really are comes out; there is not one exception of it," said one New England-based Democratic strategist. "If you look at the range of events the other candidates have done, from large to small the different media outlets, [Sanders] is Johnny One Note. He does big halls, big speeches, TV interviews and he says the same thing over and over and over. But as a presidential candidate, let alone president, you are required to perform a more broader range of duties that require a more broader range of responses."  

Sanders' campaign did not return a request for comment by press time. But with more than four months to go before primary contests begin, some Democrats wonder whether voters will tire of Sanders' campaign tactics.  

"He’s deadly serious, convinced of the moral certainty of his views and absolutely certain that he’s got all the answers. He’s often disdainful of people that aren’t as serious as him," said one longtime top Democratic Senate aide. "The word's been used before but it’s also correct: He’s got a prickly persona. Can the rallies he’s been conducting, impressive though they may have been, translate into a successful campaign? I'm skeptical based on the senator I’ve seen."  

Related: Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.