As Michigan and five other states hold Democratic primaries today, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), while hoping for a win tonight, had already started turning his attention to next week's big contest in Ohio. But late Tuesday plans changed.
"Out of concern for public health and safety, we are canceling tonight’s rally in Cleveland," a statement from Sanders' campaign announced. "We are heeding the public warnings from Ohio state officials, who have communicated concern about holding large, indoor events during the coronavirus outbreak. Sen. Sanders would like to express his regret to the thousands of Ohioans who had planned to attend the event tonight."
Shortly after the Sanders announcement, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign said it too was canceling an event also in Cleveland.
Earlier Tuesday, Ohio confirmed its first three cases of the coronavirus and Gov. Mike DeWine issued a state of emergency.
So Sanders' attention returns to tonight's contests. The self-proclaimed "Democratic-socialist" has scoffed at suggestions he could drop out if he doesn't win Michigan, but his travel schedule underscores its importance. He canceled a trip to Mississippi and instead made five campaign stops across Michigan since Friday.
He jabbed Biden during a Monday appearance in downtown St. Louis, reminding a largely young crowd of the former vice president's long record in Washington. Sanders noted that unlike Biden, he opposed the war in Iraq, Wall Street bailouts after the 2008 collapse and any talk of cuts to Social Security.
"In a general election, which candidate can generate the enthusiasm and the excitement and the voter turnout we need?” Sanders asked. “If you want to defeat Trump, which all Democrats do and the majority of independents do and some Republicans do, we are that campaign.”
One of Sanders' highest-profile supporters, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, struck a far more conciliatory tone the day before addressing 10,000-plus on the campus of the University of Michigan on Sunday night, saying, “In order for us to win, we have to grow.”
“We must be inclusive. We must bring more people into this movement," she said, urging Sanders supporters to shed “cynicism and exclusion” and “turn with an embracing posture, where all people are welcome in a people's movement.”
Sanders is optimistic about Washington state on Tuesday, but could face hurdles in Mississippi and Missouri. Sanders' team acknowledges he will also struggle in next week's Florida primary, where the senator's past defense of Fidel Castro looms large. He also could face long odds in Ohio and Illinois — especially if he underperforms in Michigan. Both of those states also vote March 17.
The wild card next week could be Arizona, where Sanders will be counting on strong Latino support, which lifted him to victory in California.
Sanders advisers are aware that Biden could build an insurmountable delegate lead if he runs up the score in the upcoming contests. They hope to continue doing well in the West before picking up momentum in places like delegate-rich New York, which holds its primary next month.
There's no guarantee Sanders could last that long this time, however, given the higher expectations he now faces. Even some of those attending Sanders rallies are beginning to feel it, although his St. Louis audience was optimistic.
Alec McAulay, a 19-year-old college student from St. Louis County, said Sanders has proved that he’s a true alternative to the president.
“I think Biden agrees with Trump too much, more than any Democrat should,” McAulay said.