- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden is close to putting away the Democratic presidential race after wins Tuesday in Florida, Illinois and Arizona that expanded his lead over Sen. Bernard Sanders.

The races in all three states were called an hour after the polls closed or sooner, leaving little doubt that Mr. Biden was continuing his march through the March primaries.

The contests were also the first to play out amid the full coronavirus panic. Ohio, which also had been slated to vote Tuesday, postponed its contests, while voters in the other states were bombarded with messages about limiting their exposure to others as they tried to do their civic duty.

Analysts say the virus, which is responsible for more than 100 deaths in the U.S., is rewriting the rules of politics.

That was evident Tuesday when Mr. Biden addressed voters via a blurry livestream from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, rather than the customary roomful of cheering supporters.

Mr. Biden said he has moved close to winning the nomination by building a coalition of voters that could power him to victory in November.

“Sen. Sanders and I may disagree on tactics, but we share a common vision,” said Mr. Biden, signaling his support for expanding health care coverage, reducing income equality and combating climate change. “Sen. Sanders and his supporters have brought a remarkable passion and tenacity to all these issues, and together they have shifted the fundamental conversation in this county.”

“So let me say, especially to the young voters who have been inspired by and supported Sen. Sanders, I hear you,” Mr. Biden said. “I know what is at stake. I know what we have to do. Our goal as campaign and my goal as a candidate for president of the United States is to unify this party and then to unify the nation.”

Mr. Biden crushed Mr. Sanders in Florida, and the race there was called as soon as the polls closed. With 98% of the precincts reporting, Mr. Biden led Mr. Sanders by a 61.7% to 22.8% margin.

Mr. Biden was leading Mr. Sanders by a 58.7% to 36.5% margin in Illinois with a little over half of the precincts reporting. And in Arizona, the former vice president held a lead of 42.4% to 29.6% with 58% of the vote counted.

Despite the results, exit polls showed a majority of voters in Florida and Illinois (59% and 57%, respectively) backed government-run health insurance that would supplant the private market — akin to the “Medicare for All” plan that Mr. Sanders of Vermont has championed.

The exit polls also showed that a number of voters aren’t interested in returning to the policies of the Obama years.

For Mr. Sanders, the setbacks could lead to some soul-searching and will spark more calls for him to pull out of the race. Party leaders are eager to avoid a repeat of 2016, when a prolonged primary battle and a nasty convention hurt the party’s ability to unify against President Trump.

“We know how this race is going to turn out now. We just don’t know when,” David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said on CNN. “The question for Sen. Sanders is: Does it benefit the project of defeating President Trump for him to stay in this race simply to make a statement, or is it time to consolidate around Biden?”

Coronavirus concerns and the difficulties it could cause in upcoming primaries are fueling the sense of urgency that Democrats will be better off if they can clear the way for Mr. Biden and let him focus on Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden said combating the virus is a national emergency that is “akin to a war.”

“This is a moment when we need our leaders to lead, but it is also a moment where the choices and decisions we make as individuals are going to collectively impact on what happens, make a big difference in the severity of this outbreak and the ability of our medical and hospital systems to handle it,” he said.

Ohio is the fifth state to push back its primary date in response to the pandemic, although it had the earliest scheduled date and did it with the smallest amount of notice — just hours before polls were to open.

The virus has threatened to depress turnout, which has been up in many states since 2016. Michigan had record turnout last week, marking a 30% increase over four years ago.

The ripple effect of the coronavirus manifested itself Tuesday at slow polling locations. Some voters decided to sit on their hands instead of potentially exposing themselves to the COVID-19 virus.

The results Tuesday, though, showed plenty of others had already voted via absentee and mail-in ballots, which Mr. Biden dominated in Florida.

The contests followed a tumultuous election eve in Ohio that ended when the state Supreme Court upheld Gov. Mike DeWine’s late-in-the-game decision to postpone in-person voting. Elected leaders in Ohio are now considering whether to have in-person voting on June 2.

March has been good to Mr. Biden. Entering Tuesday, he had won 15 of 22 contests this month. Mr. Sanders had won six of them. Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took the other — in American Samoa.

Mr. Biden carried an 894 to 793 delegate lead into the contests.

It marks a dramatic turnout from roughly a month ago when Mr. Biden limped out of the first three primary contests without a single victory — only to turn things around with a landslide win in the South Carolina primary.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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