The clock was ticking. Bernie Sanders appeared to be on his way to putting a stranglehold on the Democratic nomination. He would do it today, Super Tuesday.
Opposition to his socialist surge was scattered among several moderate candidates, none of whom was able to match him in the first three primaries. This was glaringly true in the case of Joe Biden, who was thrashed by Mr. Sanders in all three.
Slow-mo Joe looked limp and moribund. A comeback was possible but unlikely, pundits, myself included, speculated. Odds were stacked against him. He was expected to win South Carolina but even that was in doubt as polls showed Mr. Sanders closing the gap. If the Vermont firebrand came even a close second, he could shut the door on the former vice-president.
But Mr. Biden had his strongest debate performance in the Palmetto State and then received the endorsement of South Carolina’s kingmaker, black Congressman James Clyburn. On voting day, he not only won, he crushed Bernie Sanders by 30 points. His victory speech was the best he’d given in years.
He was on his feet but few could have predicted what followed. A sudden coalescing of moderate candidates behind him. A potentially game-changing gang-up on Sanders-styled socialism.
Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who had become bitter rivals, dropped out of the race and endorsed Mr. Biden. Former candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas also climbed aboard the Biden train.
In the space of a week, Mr. Biden moved from roadkill to redemption. Super Tuesday results will show how much momentum his South Carolina win coupled with the endorsements will provide. Endorsements don’t automatically translate to waves of support.
Mr. Sanders has held a lead over him in most of the 14 states that are voting, including California, the mother of all delegate-givers. But the latest polls showed that lead shrinking rapidly. The coalition of the centrists appeared to be a sure bet to slow him.
Mr. Sanders looked shell-shocked, as well he might have at the turn of events, in a CNN interview on Monday evening. But he delivered his message of bold change to contrast the middling agenda of moderates with his usual truculence.
Mr. Biden showed renewed vigour from all the good news but occasionally appeared befuddled. Campaigning in Texas, he called Super Tuesday “super Thursday.” In reciting a passage from the Declaration of Independence, he asserted “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” but then stumbled. "All men and women created by – you know, you know – the thing.”
The thing? The thing is that the aging Biden gives his supporters the collywobbles as he seems capable of stepping into quicksand at any time. He’s the comeback relic. The sudden move to him was more out of desperation than desire.
In addition to the others, he can also look forward to eventual support from moderate Michael Bloomberg if his candidacy shrivels as the Biden team suspects it will. And, if not a direct endorsement, Mr. Biden will likely receive a signal of support at some point from Barack Obama.
The African-American vote is what transformed his campaign. Mr. Biden received the support of 61 per cent of black voters in South Carolina. Lack of support from voters of colour killed the Buttigieg and Klobuchar campaigns and has held Elizabeth Warren down as well.
Having raised US$29-million last month, Ms. Warren will continue to be a force in the race. Being closely aligned with Mr. Sanders on policy, many of her supporters can eventually be expected to move to him. But she is not likely to endorse him formally any time soon if at all.
Mr. Sanders has more support in the huge Latino community than does Mr. Biden and has far greater appeal to young voters. He raised US$46-million in February.
While the consolidation of the moderate candidates is a unifying step, it risks widening the schism with the party’s left flank. Cultish Sanders supporters will see the moves as an insider plot by party elites against him. The developments will serve to intensify their ardour for him.
Healing the division will be a tall order no matter which side emerges triumphant in the nomination fight. The Republicans have no such problem as they stand foursquare behind Mr. Trump. He was looking forward to a clash with a socialist in the fall but may not get his wish.
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