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Sanders Campaign Bets on Michigan

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 3/8/2020 Eliza Collins
a man holding a glass of wine © Brian Cahn/Zuma Press

DETROIT—The future of Bernie Sanders’s political campaign could come down to Michigan, and the Vermont senator is going all in.

Mr. Sanders’s once-solid position as the front-runner dissolved in the past week after Vice President Joe Biden consolidated the moderate wing of the Democratic Party behind him and romped through South Carolina and the March 3 Super Tuesday states.

To reinvigorate his campaign—his second run for the Democratic presidential nomination—Mr. Sanders is barnstorming Michigan and calling in prominent progressives including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to rally young, working-class and minority voters.

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“I’m feeling good about the momentum we have,” Mr. Sanders said on Fox News Sunday.

Mr. Sanders overtook the former vice president in national polling in early February and proceeded to effectively tie in Iowa and win solidly in New Hampshire and Nevada. But Mr. Biden pulled out a 28-point victory in South Carolina on Feb. 29 in large part because of overwhelming support among the state’s black voters. Then last Tuesday, he beat Mr. Sanders in 10 of 14 states after receiving endorsements from two erstwhile rivals: former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. On Sunday, California Sen. Kamala Harris said she too was backing Mr. Biden and would campaign with him in Michigan on Monday.

Winning Michigan and a significant chunk of its total 125 delegates on Tuesday would help keep Mr. Sanders competitive, but should he lose, his path to the nomination narrows significantly. The Vermont senator also needs a resounding victory to back up his case that he alone can build a coalition to win general-election battleground states, like Michigan, that Mr. Trump won in 2016. So far, it is Mr. Biden who has expanded the Democratic electorate, vote results and exit polls have shown.

Mr. Sanders said on Fox News Sunday that he “certainly would not consider dropping out” if he loses in Michigan on Tuesday.

In 2016, Mr. Sanders pulled off a surprise victory here against Hillary Clinton, and polling shows this year’s race is competitive.

On Thursday, Mr. Sanders’s aides rewrote his schedule and canceled a visit to Mississippi, which also votes March 10, and added more events in Michigan.

The campaign also dispatched top aides to Michigan at the end of last week, including those who led his Iowa operation, putting a total of 25 paid staff on the ground for the final stretch, according to aides to the campaign.

“We’re very proud of the fact that we have strong support from the African-American community, the Muslim community, in Michigan and in every state in the country,” Mr. Sanders told reporters in Burlington, Vt., earlier this week.

Saturday morning Mr. Sanders held a rally with a diverse crowd in Dearborn, Mich., a city with a large Arab-American population.

But that evening, Mr. Sanders scrapped a planned speech intended to make his case to black voters in Flint, Mich., after discussing it with local black activists, his spokesman said.

In discussions backstage ahead of the event, Mr. Sanders and the activists “decided it was probably better to let the people of color who were on the panel discuss instead of him giving a traditional speech,” spokesman Mike Casca later told reporters about the change.

“He does not have those experiences,” Mr. Casca said. “He is a white Jewish man.”

When Mr. Sanders did address the mostly white crowd, he gave his standard stump speech. The panelists at the event then spoke more specifically about issues affecting black communities.

On Sunday, Mr. Biden attended services at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., where he credited the African-American community for resurrecting his campaign.

“You’re the reason I’m back. Nobody else, no other reason,” Mr. Biden told the majority black congregation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sanders also has started speaking more frequently to the reporters traveling with him, taking the opportunity to reiterate his attacks on Mr. Biden’s vote in favor of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and his past openness to freezing Social Security benefits, two topics aides believe resonate with Michigan voters.

Mr. Sanders has also begun to bring up positions Mr. Biden took during his decadeslong career in the Senate, such as his support for the Hyde Amendment barring federal funds from being used for abortions and for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy barring lesbian and gay troops from serving openly in the U.S. military. Mr. Biden has since reversed his support of the Hyde Amendment. During a CNN forum in October, Mr. Biden said he never supported the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy but voted for it as part of a larger bill. Mr. Biden also publicly backed same-sex marriage before President Barack Obama did, which pressed Mr. Obama also to come out in favor of it.

“We are disappointed but not surprised by this kind of campaigning from Sen. Sanders. It’s telling that his campaign is resorting to recycled and false attacks following the Vice President’s resounding win on Super Tuesday,” TJ Ducklo, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, wrote in a statement. “Our campaign is focused on bringing Democrats together and uniting to take on Donald Trump, and not on tactics that will further divide our Party and help re-elect the president.”

Aides to Mr. Sanders insist the campaign isn’t changing strategy in reaction to the shift in the primary race, instead saying it is a natural progression as it has become a two-man campaign.

“He’s talking about Social Security, trade, all things he’s talked about the entire time,” Mr. Casca said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Biden isn’t expected in Michigan until Monday, where aides say he will likely emphasize his role in the 2009 bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler.

Ahead of his visit, Mr. Biden has sent surrogates in his place—including a former competitor, Sen. Klobuchar—and has key backers in the state, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

At a rally in St. Louis on Saturday, Mr. Biden made only a brief mention of Mr. Sanders, telling the crowd that it was he—and not the Vermont senator—who was driving higher turnout among voters. Mr. Biden told donors in a Friday conference call that he wanted to prevent the Democratic primary from degenerating into a “negative bloodbath.”

“We can’t tear this party apart and re-elect Trump,” Mr. Biden said.

Write to Eliza Collins at eliza.collins@wsj.com.

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