WASHINGTON -- Marco Rubio did it at the historic Freedom Tower in Miami. Rand Paul did it in his home state of Kentucky. Ted Cruz did it at Virginia's Liberty University, one of the most socially conservative institutions in the country. Yet Bernie Sanders, the spunky senator from Vermont and fourth member of the upper chamber to declare a 2016 run for the White House, kicked off his campaign Thursday at an unusual location: the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
The self-described "democratic socialist," who is the first candidate to challenge Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, called for reform to the U.S. electoral system, which he described as beholden to wealthy interests and the top 1 percent of Americans. Pointing several times to the dome of the Capitol behind him as a symbol for the electorate, Sanders framed the 2016 presidential election as a defining moment for the middle class.
"The major issue is how do we create an economy that works for all of our people rather than a small number of billionaires," Sanders said in a press conference, as strands of his hair blew in the breeze.
As a result of the wealthy Koch brothers and the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, which unleashed unlimited outside money into elections, Sanders said, "We now have a political situation where billionaires are literally able to buy elections and candidates. Let's not kid ourselves. That is the reality right now."
In the Senate, Sanders has worked to curtail the excesses of Wall Street banks, regulate money in politics and address the threat posed by climate change. He will likely take that populist message on the campaign trail, and supplement it by speaking about growing income inequality and stagnant wages.
Sanders has been received enthusiastically in early primary states, including Iowa and most recently South Carolina, where he drew a large crowd at an annual convention of Democratic Party faithful. Among Democratic voters, he polls significantly behind Clinton, yet ahead of other likely presidential contenders such as former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Democrats officially welcomed Sanders into the race on Thursday, stressing that additional candidates for the nomination will contribute to "a healthy dialogue about the future of our party and our nation."
"There is a distinct contrast between Democrats who are on the side of middle and working class families and Republicans who are concerned with the very rich and wealthy corporations. Over the next year, the discussions we have during our respective nominating processes will help make that choice clear," said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).
Sanders isn't expected to mount a serious challenge to Clinton, but he does have an important opportunity to shape the debate in months to come. He began to do so in remarks Wednesday, by highlighting Clinton's vote for the Iraq War, a similar tactic to what then-Sen. Barack Obama used in 2008. And he tied his oft-repeated refrains against huge sums of money in politics to ongoing questions over the Clinton Foundation, calling allegations of improper donations "a very serious problem."
But Clinton ignored those points when she gamely welcomed Sanders to the fray on Thursday.
"I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America's middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race," she said in a tweet.
Other issues voters can expect Sanders to challenge Clinton on are near and dear to progressive hearts: Social Security, trade, the environment and health care. The presidential contender hits the campaign trail this weekend in New Hampshire, where he will attend what his campaign described as a "house party" in Manchester and deliver remarks at the Granite State's AFL-CIO convention.
Asked by reporters on Thursday whether he was really serious about his chances in the Democratic primary, he shot back, "We're in it to win it."
This post has been updated with a tweet from Clinton.