Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will travel to the Vatican next week, setting up a possible meeting with Pope Francis that could serve to broaden his appeal to Catholic voters ahead of crucial nominating contests in a series of Northeastern states.
Like the pope, Sanders has made the economic inequality and the plight of the working class a central tenet of his message. His scheduled April 15 visit to Vatican City, where he will give an economic address at a conference, will come just days before Democrats in New York vote in their state primary.
The following week will bring contests in Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, all states with large populations of Catholic voters.
In an interview on MSNBC, Sanders, who would be the first Jewish president if elected, described himself as a "big, big fan of the pope," who leads the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Speaking to reporters in New York later, Sanders said he hoped to meet with Francis.
"The pope's schedule is determined by the Vatican but I would certainly be enthusiastic about that," said Sanders, 74, the Brooklyn-born son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. "... I think there is a possibility but that has not been scheduled.
Sanders' victory earlier this week over Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin primary marked his sixth win in the past seven contests against the former secretary of state, sparking renewed talk of Clinton's political vulnerability despite her substantial delegate lead.
The announcement came after the Vermont senator this week saying Clinton, a former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, was not qualified to be president.
After heavy criticism from Clinton's campaign and other Democrats, Sanders backed off Friday morning in an interview on NBC's "Today."
Asked if Clinton was qualified for the presidency, Sanders replied, "Of course."
"On her worst day, she would be an infinitely better president than either of the Republican candidates," he said, referring to New York developer Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
'DON'T DO LASTING DAMAGE'
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, urged both Clinton and Sanders to make sure that whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee does not end up in a weakened position to take on the Republican candidate in the general election.
"I think both campaigns really need to be careful about making sure that we don't do lasting damage," Wasserman Schultz told Fox News Channel Friday.
Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said Sanders aligning himself with the pontiff makes sense. Trailing badly in the delegate race, Sanders must find opportunities to boost enthusiasm for his campaign.
"Look at buzz and the excitement it's going to create. It's going to drive the news cycle," he said.
A meeting with the pope could provide an electoral boost to Sanders, who has trailed Clinton in terms of support among America's Catholic Democrats.
Earlier this campaign season, Clinton scored victories over Sanders in Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, all of which are more than one-quarter Catholic. A survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this year found that while almost 70 percent of Catholic Democrats thought Clinton would make a good president, just 46 percent thought Sanders would be one.
Clinton leads Sanders by almost 700 delegates - 1,749 to 1,061 - with 1,955 left to be allocated.
Pope Francis, a 79-year-old Argentine, also has been outspoken about helping the poor. Sanders said on Friday he admires the pope for criticizing the "worship of money, the greed that's out there."
"There are people who think that Bernie Sanders is radical," Sanders said on MSNBC. "Read what the pope is writing."
Francis' popularity with both Catholics and non-Catholics has given him an image of a grandfatherly priest who understands how difficult it sometimes is to follow Roman Catholic Church teachings.
He became a part of the Republican race in February when, in response to a reporter's question, he suggested Trump was not a Christian because of his plan to build a wall to keep immigrants from crossing the southern U.S. border.