Sen. Bernard Sanders vowed to stay in the Democratic presidential race Wednesday after suffering a series of tough defeats at the hands of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden that narrowed the Vermont democratic socialist’s path to the nomination to a mere sliver.
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, pivoted to general election mode by confronting the challenge of healing the left-vs.-establishment split in the party and coaxing aboard Mr. Sanders’ devotees.
Mr. Sanders trails Mr. Biden in polls and appears headed for a drubbing in the next wave of primaries Tuesday in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, where a whopping 577 delegates are up for grabs.
Mr. Sanders suffered a beating in primaries this week, losing all but one of the six states voting, with the biggest blow coming with his loss in Michigan, a state in which he triumphed over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.
But Mr. Sanders insisted that he is down, but not out.
He said he may be losing the delegate race and the debate over electability, but he is winning the ideological and generational battles.
“Today, I say to the Democratic establishment, in order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country and you must speak to the issues of concern to them,” he said at a press conference in Burlington, Vermont. “You cannot simply be satisfied by winning the votes of people who are older.”
Mr. Sanders said Sunday’s debate in Phoenix will offer him a prime opportunity to press Mr. Biden issues that have fueled his political revolution, including health care, climate change and immigration.
“Donald Trump must be defeated and I will do everything in my power to make that happen,” Mr. Sanders said. “On Sunday night, in the first one-on-one debate of this campaign, the American people will have the opportunity to see which candidate is the best to accomplish that goal.”
Mr. Biden’s success Tuesday added to the sense that Mr. Sanders is running out of chances to change the trajectory of the race.
“If he can plainly outperform Biden, and, in particular, cause Biden to again seem confused, as he did in most of the early debates, voters in the 20-some contests that have not yet taken place might reject the ‘all in for Biden’ advice from the other ex-candidates and other party bigwigs,” said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois.
“Barring a decisive win in the debate, I think that Sanders has no clear way to get the nomination,” Mr. Gaines added.
Polls show Mr. Sanders is behind by double digits in Arizona, Illinois, and Ohio. In delegate-rich Florida, he trails by more than 42 points, according to Real Clear Politics average.
Mike Noble, an Arizona-based pollster, painted a grim picture for Mr. Sanders in Arizona: “There is nothing in the data that shows Bernie has a snowball’s chance in heck of winning.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Sanders’ praise for the literacy programs of Cuba’s communist dictatorship has damaged him in Florida, including among the young voters who have flocked to his campaign in other states, according to Fernand Amandi, a managing partner at the public opinion and consulting firm Bendixen & Amandi.
Even the youth in Florida’s Cuban American community feel about the Castros “the same way younger Jewish American voters would feel about Adolf Hitler,” said Mr. Amandi, adding that a win for the democratic socialist in Florida is “impossible.”
Political analysts see the nomination pretty much sewn up at this point, but predict Mr. Sanders will stay in for a while longer to pull Mr. Biden to the left.
“You can get the impression he is going to stay in because of the cause or the movement,” said G. Terry Madonna, director at the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “He believes his cause transcends him, meaning if the progressive agenda is not enacted, then our country is doomed to fall.”
In a speech Tuesday night, Mr. Biden looked to bridge the divide, emphasizing party unity.
“I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion,” Mr. Biden said. “We share a common goal and together we will defeat Donald Trump.”
Mr. Biden said there is a “phenomenal opportunity to deliver a bold progressive vision to the American people” that includes making affordable health care “is not a privilege, but a right,” strengthening schools and tightening gun control laws.
Carlos Cardona, chair of the Laconia New Hampshire Democrats and a Sanders backer, said he was pleased to hear Mr. Biden’s tone has started to “completely change.”
“I do think he realizes he cannot win without Bernie’s people,” Mr. Cardona said. “You can hear him talking about gratitude toward Bernie and less attacks.”
Still, Mr. Cardona, whose family is from Puerto Rico, warned Mr. Biden has his work cut out for him.
“They need to give a platform to young people, Latin people and Bernie people,” he said. “As we say in Puerto Rico, you can dress up for prom all you want, but you are not going anywhere.”