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Sanders still has life, raising questions about strength of Clinton campaign

Bernie Sanders addresses a primary election night rally in Carson, Calif., May 17, 2016.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

He's not going away.

Not after Tuesday night's win in Oregon and his virtual tie in Kentucky. Not after he continued to deny Hillary Rodham Clinton momentum in the chase for Democratic convention delegates. Not any time soon. Bernie Sanders is not going away.

Ms. Clinton is still the prohibitive favourite to face Manhattan billionaire Donald Trump in the American autumn election, and she remains the presumptive nominee – a phrase Mr. Trump appropriated earlier this month as he pivoted from the bruising Republican nomination fight to his likely confrontation with Mrs. Clinton.

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Indeed, Mr. Trump spent the past several days raising the tone of his battle against the former secretary of state and New York senator. Just this week he tweeted, in a reference to the North American Free Trade Agreement involving the U.S., Canada and Mexico: "How can Crooked Hillary put her husband in charge of the economy when he was responsible for NAFTA, the worst economic deal in U.S. history?"

Ms. Clinton's Tuesday performances were tepid at best; she barely took Kentucky, a state where she prevailed over Senator Barack Obama by more than 35 percentage points in 2008, claiming victory by a mere 1,924 votes. according to the state Board of Elections – a margin so small that by midnight American news outlets didn't dare declare her the winner.

Ms. Clinton's failure to show strength in states that her husband won in his 1992 and 1996 campaigns continues to raise questions about the strength of her own campaign. Still, only the most devout Sanders followers believe the Vermonter has a plausible path to the nomination. Yet virtually the only ones who are calling for him to drop out of the race are firmly in the Clinton camp.

These Clinton supporters believe that Mr. Sanders has had a good run, and has had a substantial impact on American politics, but that it is time to recognize that Ms. Clinton will be the nominee and that further criticism of her will only weaken the Democrats' chances of retaining the White House and making inroads in the House and Senate, both of which are controlled by the Republicans. That view was reinforced after the tumult produced by angry Sanders partisans at a Nevada state convention over the weekend.

But not all the Clintonistas believe Mr. Sanders should stand down, at least until the California primary next month.

"There are Sanders supporters in California who have been working since January for him, and some of them don't get paid or make about $150 a week," former governor Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and a Clinton supporter, said in an interview this week. "They deserve the thrill of having the voters going to the polls and voting for their candidate. He should go all the way. He owes it to his supporters."

Weeks ago, when Mrs. Clinton was on the ascendancy again, Mr. Sanders suggested that his role in the campaign was to give shape to the Democratic platform, which is the party's campaign manifesto and, broadly speaking, a statement of its values and views. That is what candidates in eclipse often say, not acknowledging that an American party platform is an insiders' document never read by the public, seldom consulted by academics, and rarely employed by lawmakers and presidents. As consolation prizes go, it is an empty document and an empty gesture.

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If Mr. Sanders, as expected, fails to win the nomination, he could nonetheless tell his supporters that his strong views on the wealth gap, the comportment of Wall Street and the big banks, climate change and student debt were heeded and that the party was committed to their values. But that is not enough for some of those Sanders supporters.

Robert B. Reich, who was a friend of Bill Clinton when both were Rhodes Scholars and later was appointed labour secretary in the Clinton Administration, believes Mr. Sanders should remain in the race.

"His views about widening inequality and the power that comes with great wealth to compound that wealth through political influence are critically important, his proposals need to be considered, and he's brought millions of young people into politics," Mr. Reich, who has endorsed Mr. Sanders, said Tuesday. "Also there's still a very very small chance he could make it." Some Sanders supporters believe the senator should suspend his campaign after the June 7 California primary and set to work to defeat Mr. Trump.

They have in mind what they call "an organization, completely independent of the Clinton campaign" to assure that Mr. Trump does not win the White House. This is occurring as some conservatives, repelled by Mr. Trump's behaviour and his views, are openly calling for an independent campaign for the presidency by an authentic conservative. No third-party candidate has won any electoral votes – the critical tallies generally distributed state by state – in nearly a half century, since former governor George C. Wallace of Alabama won five states in the 1968 election that sent Richard M. Nixon to the presidency. Independent candidate H. Ross Perot won nearly 20 million votes (19 per cent) in the 1992 campaign that elected Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton re-emerged this week as a formidable factor in American politics. After his wife announced he would have an economic-growth portfolio in her administration – much as she had the health-care portfolio in his – Ms. Clinton sought to remind voters of the economic health that prevailed during the Clinton years, which lasted from 1993 to 2001.

"I want to help bring back the kind of economy that worked for everybody in the 1990s," she said in Kentucky. But as her husband always said, American elections are about the future, not the past, and while the future almost certainly includes her nomination, the resolution of the fall campaign remains uncertain. The Real Clear Politics average puts the Clinton lead over Mr. Trump at only 5.7 percentage points.

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