Hillary Clinton continues locking up support for her presidential bid from most of the DFL’s biggest names and wealthiest donors, leaving Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders hoping his fiery populist message builds momentum with the liberal true believers who give the party much of its energy.

The battle between Clinton and Sanders offers DFLers a stark choice between a formidable front-runner with history-making potential, and a socialist underdog who vows to strike at the nation’s economic elite.

With Vice President Joe Biden definitely not running, Sanders presents the last major obstacle to Clinton’s rise to Democratic standard-bearer against whichever Republican emerges from the still-muddled cluster of candidates.

While the former secretary of state and first lady enjoys wide establishment support in Minnesota, she also appeals to many party activists — particularly women — who would love to shatter the glass ceiling at the Oval Office.

“It just wasn’t meant to happen the first time around,” said Eva Maile Ichkhanian, a Minneapolis DFLer and medical company analyst who since May has devoted a night a week to making calls and knocking on doors for Clinton’s second try at the White House. “It was karma. But this year, it’s our time.”

Sanders has found an enthusiastic audience on the left flank of the DFL by denouncing what he calls a shift in the U.S. away from democracy and toward oligarchy.

“I don’t want my children fighting the same battles my grandparents did,” said Jake Sanders — no relation — a small-business owner in Glenwood who is helping the Sanders campaign organize in outstate Minnesota. “To have to fight to go to college. To have to fight for equitable health care. Bernie is out there creating this incredible energy and movement of the people around questions like these, and all we’re trying to do is harness that energy in Minnesota.”

A test for Sanders

Minnesota is likely to be among the ripest targets for the Sanders campaign to sap Clinton’s momentum when presidential primaries and caucuses get underway early next year. Minnesota’s March 1 caucus follows closely on the heels of the opening volleys of the ’16 race in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Clinton started as Democratic front-runner eight years ago, but fell behind and ultimately lost as President Obama’s ability to generate grass-roots enthusiasm flipped expectations — particularly in caucus states like Iowa and Minnesota. Clinton led Obama in polls in September 2007 and January 2008, but by caucus night in February, Obama beat her by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio.

There have been no notable polls in Minnesota yet this cycle. A recent Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers found Clinton at 48 percent support but with Sanders nipping at her heels at 41 percent.

Gov. Mark Dayton, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, former Vice President Walter Mondale, DFL Chairman Ken Martin and a raft of other DFL elected officials, activists and prominent donors have signed on with Clinton. But Sanders scored an important Minnesota endorsement from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who said he’d give the Sanders campaign access to his sophisticated turnout operation, including a vast database of progressive voters throughout the state.

Biden’s possible candidacy had some prominent DFLers and deep-pocketed donors hedging on Clinton. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan of northeastern Minnesota, who was waiting on Biden’s decision, said a day later that he’s still not ready to weigh in. The state’s two other Democratic members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum of St. Paul and Collin Peterson of northwestern Minnesota, are also still uncommitted. McCollum declined an interview request.

“The Clinton people called me a couple times, and I haven’t called them back,” Peterson said. “I’ll let them simmer for awhile. It’s too early.”

There’s no such reluctance from heavyweight DFL donors.

“I mean, really, who is tougher and who is smarter than Hillary Clinton?” said Vance Opperman, a top DFL donor and one-time campaign operative. “Nobody that I’ve seen on the national scene.”

Dayton pointed out last week that Sanders, a political independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, “has not been a Democrat, self-defined, for his entire career.”

Still, the breadth of support for Clinton in the DFL establishment has rankled some Sanders supporters. Particularly irritating to them is the open backing from Martin and other party officers at the state and national level, who frequently stay neutral in interparty contests.

“They’re committed to getting Hillary the nomination,” said Susanna Patterson, a veteran DFL activist from Stillwater.

Patterson is working for a national political action committee that calls itself Revolt Against Plutocracy, which has gathered more than 16,000 signatures for a “Bernie or Bust” petition stating that if he isn’t the party’s nominee, that they won’t vote next November for whoever is. Alleging Clinton is too close to Wall Street interests, the group has taken to calling her “Corporate Clinton.”

“We mean business here. We say Bernie or else,” said Charlie Hobbs, a St. Cloud activist also working with the effort. Similar disputes have played out nationally, with dissent between party leaders about the number of presidential debates erupting into public sniping.

Martin said his own support for Clinton won’t translate into support from the larger DFL apparatus ahead of the party caucus next March. He praised Sanders’ campaign, but is clearly irked by the “Bernie or Bust” pledge.

“I just disagree with anyone who would throw away their vote to make a point,” said Martin, who posted a lengthy criticism of the effort on his Facebook page. “The stakes are immense, they’re hugely important, and if we’re going to play games like this, you’re going to cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Sanders himself has vowed to support the eventual DFL nominee, and supporters like Ellison are similarly cautious, saving their harshest fire for the Republican candidates.

“There is not one Democratic candidate who is not far, far better than any of the Republicans,” Ellison said.

Minnesota momentum

For months now, both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have been building networks in Minnesota, largely through the work of volunteers. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has shown traces of Minnesota support, but nowhere near the level of Clinton or Sanders.

Jim Manley, a veteran D.C. operative and Minnesota native who is backing Clinton, said Minnesota’s caucus — which features rules that reward an avid approach to grass-roots organizing — would be a good test of whether Sanders’ appeal to certain segments of the party can be turned into concrete support.

“Energy and enthusiasm is one thing, but it’s got to be translated to ground troops in an operation, and I’m not sure he and his team are ready for this type of thing,” Manley said.

As part of her volunteer efforts for Clinton, Maile Ichkhanian threw a Democratic presidential debate-watching party in the community room of a south Minneapolis apartment building. About 50 DFLers watched the debate. It was just one of several dozen similar events put together by supporters of both Clinton and Sanders around the state.

Billy Fitzgerald, a wastewater engineer in Minneapolis and longtime DFLer, came to the Clinton party even though he’s feeling tempted to throw in with Sanders.

“We need less corporate involvement in this country, and that’s where Bernie comes in real strong,” Fitzgerald said. But he’s also aware that the general election appeal of a self-described socialist might be limited.

“Most important, we need to win,” Fitzgerald said. “High ideals are great, but at the end of the day we have to hold on to the White House.”