A square of bright blue caught my eye last week, its block lettering in crisp white underscored with a slash of red, Bernie 2016. And while the straight-talking senator from Vermont may not yet get my vote, nor the nomination, he remains a sentimental favorite, with his unruly shock of white hair, grating Brooklyn accent, and drumbeat message of income inequality, tempered only by his sincerity and the nostalgic strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s America looping on his ads.

But it is not Bernie that gets me — no bern, as they say, but still a warm flush — but the campaign sign, the first spotted in my neighborhood since the Iowa caucuses, a portent of the overlong lead-up to the 2016 election, as welcome a harbinger as the old Robin red breast who signaled the coming of spring in the long, cold East coast winter.

Sure, the lead-in to this winter’s primaries has been overheated, the temperature hiked up by The Donald with his platinum comb-over and his outrageous rhetoric. And yet, while his talk is just talk, and cheap, he cannily keys into the discontents of the nation, a stagnating economy, slow job growth, and a ravaged middle class. He panders to our basest instincts, stirring up anger, fear and intolerance, fast and furiously spewing insults and trading barbs with nary any real proposals or plans. The vacuousness of his candidacy is matched only by his cluelessness as to the seriousness of the enterprise as he boasts to his frenzied minions that he doesn’t want to be a politician, he wants to be President. And lord help us if he is.

That said, Trump’s campaign serves to liven up the proceedings, even as he dumbs them down, and provides entertaining counterpoint to Senator Ted Cruz’s holier than thou, Bible thumping pitch for the nomination aimed squarely at the religious right, and Senator Marco Rubio’s unabashed milking of his all-American immigrant story for a third place finish — a masterful ploy to run as the underdog and miraculously prevail as one. The final count in Iowa leaving all three in the running had me cheering. The race is on, and we are watching.

Same could be said about the hairline finish between Senator Sanders and Hillary Clinton, which puts them both on the offensive in New Hampshire and beyond and is pushing them to more clearly articulate their policies and proposals and force us to drill down beyond the overblown promises of progress and practicality.

Iowa was long on spectacle and short on substance, but there was a frisson of excitement — like that sighting of the blue sign that warmed my heart — that has been missing in the months that have been the run-up to the primaries. Now, of course, the hard work begins, pushing the candidates, and ourselves, to really engage with the issues confronting us so that come November we’ll have real choices to make between serious candidates who have more clearly identified our nation’s most pressing problems and the strategies for addressing them.

Looking for America, as Bernie’s theme song goes? She’s out there, blue and red, left, right and center, idealist and realist, but wonderfully free and fractious, vibrant and contentious, robust and messy.
Now, it’s up to us to find her.