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As Bloomberg exits, Democrats settle in for potentially long Biden-Sanders fight

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Bernie Sanders signaled Wednesday his intention to battle on against Joe Biden, frustrating some Democrats who hoped for a quick resolution to their nominating fight even as the field continued to shrink with the exit of billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who finished third on Super Tuesday in her home state and has yet to win anywhere, was also weighing her future.

The departure of the former New York City mayor came quickly and with no regrets hours after Bloomberg was largely shut out in 15 contests, save for a win in American Samoa, in the campaign’s biggest and most significant day of balloting.

“I’ve always believed that beating Donald Trump starts with uniting behind the candidate with the best shot to do it,” he told about 1,000 campaign staffers gathered Wednesday in Midtown Manhattan. “And after yesterday’s vote, it is clear that candidate is my friend and a great American, Joe Biden.”

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Bloomberg, who sunk a record sum — more than $660 million — into his futile White House bid, made clear he planned to keep spending to drive President Trump from office, and Biden welcomed the assistance in a tweet.

As vote counting continued around the country, the final Super Tuesday contest, in Maine, was settled with Biden declared the winner. That gave him 10 victories to four for Vermont Sen. Sanders, including California, which continued its tabulations in a process expected to last weeks.

The former vice president has experienced a 72-hour period unlike any in history, going from near political death to a thumping victory in South Carolina’s primary to a coast-to -coast winning spree that vaulted him into command of the Democratic contest.

It was not apparently anything he said or did differently. Rather, it was a solidifying sense among voters — especially after two of Biden’s center-left rivals, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, quit the race after South Carolina — that he would be the party’s strongest candidate against Trump in November.

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In exit poll interviews across a dozen Super Tuesday states, conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of TV networks, a majority of voters said choosing a candidate who could beat the president was more important than finding one who agreed with them on issues. They backed the more moderate Biden overwhelmingly over Sanders despite a series of middling debate performances and a decades-long history of malapropisms and other gaffes.

“The weaknesses of Joe Biden did not disappear,” said Peter Hart, who has spent decades strategizing for Democratic candidates and causes but has stayed neutral in the current contest. “They landed on Joe Biden for a simple reason, and that is because he’s a known and safe quantity.

“The story,” Hart said, “is not the candidates. The story is the voters. Beating Donald Trump is the unifying force.”

Biden’s powerful showing propelled him past Sanders in the pledged delegate count, 566 to 501, though the number will change along with the vote totals. It takes 1,991 pledged delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot at Democrats’ summer nominating convention.

Sanders, who could have essentially wrapped up the contest with a commanding Super Tuesday performance, was undeterred by Biden’s surprising surge and their change in fortunes.

He released a flight of new TV advertising criticizing Biden’s record on Social Security and trade and allying himself with President Obama. At a pugnacious news conference at home in Vermont, Sanders took fresh aim at Biden for accepting campaign contributions from billionaires and corporate interests, even as he said he didn’t want to make their differences personal.

“I like Joe. Joe is a decent guy and I do not want this campaign to degenerate into a Trump-type epic where we are attacking each other,” Sanders said. “That is the last thing this country wants. Joe has his ideas, his record, his vision for the future, and I have mine.”

But a senior Biden aide took umbrage at the advertising Sanders is airing, saying the TV spots were reminiscent of the kinds of attacks he lobbed in his unsuccessful primary fight against Hillary Clinton four years ago, which some Democrats blame for Trump’s victory.

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“We’ve seen what kind of campaign Bernie Sanders runs and we saw the impact it had in 2016,” deputy campaign chief Kate Bedingfield told reporters.

At a brief Wednesday appearance at the W Los Angeles hotel, Biden urged undecided Democrats to join his resurgent campaign, sounding practically Sanders-like as he said he wanted “to build a movement” with “a progressive vision” to defeat Trump.

“We’re going to bring together all Americans — we showed that last night — regardless of your race, your gender, your disability, your ethnicity, Democrats, Republicans, independents, every stripe. I really mean that,” Biden said.

He declined to take questions, but did respond to one reporter who asked him about Sanders’ claims that the “establishment” was combining forces against the democratic socialist. “The establishment are all those hard-working, middle-class people, those African Americans,” Biden said. “They are the establishment!”

From here, the race barrels into half a dozen states that vote Tuesday.

The most significant, Michigan, will test the candidates’ competing appeal to working-class voters and offer a dry run of sorts for November, when Democrats hope to win back the state that was part of a “blue wall” of party strength in the industrial Midwest. Trump’s narrow victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania put him in the White House after he failed to win the national popular vote.

A week later, Democrats will vote March 17 in three states important to the general election: Arizona, Florida and Ohio; in between, the next Democratic debate will be held March 15 in Phoenix.

Both candidates face challenges ahead, with dozens of contests and several months remaining in the primary season.

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A key question is whether Biden can win over the younger and more liberal voters — especially Latinos — who have responded to Sanders’ call for revolutionary changes in politics and the country’s economic system. Sanders continues to fare poorly among black voters, a crucial Democratic constituency, who delivered Biden a string of victories across the South.

For Warren, the question is more pressing still: whether to carry on at all.

In a staff memo issued Wednesday morning, campaign manager Roger Lau acknowledged that Super Tuesday’s results “fell well short of viability goals and projections.”

“We are obviously disappointed,” he said, adding that Warren was assessing what her next steps would be. “She’s going to take time right now to think through the right way to continue this fight.”

Sanders said at his news conference that he had spoken to his fellow senator by phone and was disgusted by supporters who expressed anger that Warren had not dropped out. She should “make her own decision in her own time,” Sanders said.

Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist backing Warren, cautioned against assuming the race was suddenly over, now that Biden has pulled ahead and much of the party establishment has rallied to his side.

“We all need to take a deep breath before we draw any conclusions about how this race is going to go,” Katz said. “How many times already have people declared the race is over?”

Times staff writers Arit John, Seema Mehta and Matt Pearce contributed to this report.


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