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Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden sprint to the finish in Michigan primary amid coronavirus crisis

Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker with Joe Biden
Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker join Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Detroit rally for Joe Biden on March 9.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images )

Americans may be distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and Wall Street may have suffered its worst day since the 2008 crash, but former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed ahead in their fight to win the Michigan primary, the biggest and perhaps the most symbolically important prize among six states that will hold Democratic contests on Tuesday.

The stakes for both candidates seemed to be too high for either to scale back their campaigns Monday as they headlined events in Michigan and Missouri in hopes of locking in their party’s presidential nomination. North Dakota, Mississippi, Idaho and Washington state also vote on Tuesday.

It was far from politics as usual at the candidates’ events in Michigan.

Supporters of Biden received squirts of germ-killing hand sanitizer as they entered a school gymnasium in Detroit for a rally Monday night. Earlier in the day at the city’s airport, Sanders joined medical experts for a town hall that served as a coronavirus discussion.

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Biden enters the Michigan primary with a commanding 24% lead over Sanders in the latest Detroit Free Press poll, winning the support of 51% of likely Democratic voters compared with 27% for Sanders. The survey of 400 voters, taken after Biden’s string of victories last week on Super Tuesday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9%.

Biden also picked up endorsements from two former primary rivals, California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, each of whom took the stage to introduce him at the Detroit rally.

Detroit is predominantly African American, and a strong turnout among these voters on Tuesday — and in November’s general election — could strengthen the Democrats’ chances of winning back a state that Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump.

Biden has shown particular strength among black voters, many of whom view him not only as the most experienced candidate in what was until recently a crowded Democratic field, but as the guardian of policies such as healthcare reform and the spirit of social inclusion that are part of the legacy of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, with whom he served for eight years.

Biden drew from that alliance in his speech in Detroit, saying, “We’re building on the coalition of the most successful president in our lifetime, Barack Obama.”

“Presidents not only have to know how to fight,” Biden said of his pledge to bridge the nation’s political divide. “They have to know how to heal.”

The first half of Biden’s speech was interrupted by protesters against the North American Free Trade Agreement and proponents of the Green New Deal, an indication of how difficult it will be to unite the moderate and left wings of his own party.

Sanders, the democratic socialist, won Michigan’s primary in 2016, upsetting Clinton in a race in which she was considered the favorite.

The senator rallied supporters earlier on Monday in St. Louis by saying voters shouldn’t have to settle for politicians who represent the status quo when they’ve failed to fix the nation’s problems, such as closing the wealth gap.

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“What our campaign is about is asking people to take a hard look at America today — at the world today — and ask questions like, ‘Why are we where we are, and where should we be going?’” Sanders told the crowd at a downtown St. Louis theater.

Sen. Bernie Sanders.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Whoever wins the primary in Michigan, a pro-union manufacturing state that also has the largest number of pledged Democratic delegates up for grabs on Tuesday — 125 — will be in a better position to make the case they’re the right choice to run against President Trump.

With the coronavirus pandemic hanging over the race, both campaigns have said they will heed the advice of federal health officials about whether to continue holding rallies.

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Sanders has said that if elected, he’ll offer free inoculations against the virus once a vaccine is developed.

During the town hall with medical experts in Detroit, Sanders attacked Trump’s claim to have a “natural ability” to understand the virus as only leading to confusion.

Sanders, 78, was also asked what precautions he was taking of his own, considering he, like 77-year-old Biden, fits the demographic of those who are more vulnerable to the disease.

“Well, I’m surrounded by medical personnel,” he said. “I’m running for president of the United States, that requires a whole lot of work.”

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Fears about the virus’ effect on daily life and public gatherings add yet another twist to a rapidly shape-shifting Democratic primary battle.

Less than two weeks ago, Sanders enjoyed front-runner status and Biden’s campaign appeared to be in free-fall.

But the former vice president’s convincing win in South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary proved to be a turning point.

Then on Super Tuesday Biden racked up victories in 10 of 14 states and surged ahead of Sanders in the tally of Democratic delegates needed to clinch the party’s nomination, prompting him to declare that his campaign was very much alive.

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Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report.

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination shifted dramatically on Super Tuesday, when voters weighed in from 14 states, including California.


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