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Sanders wins Nevada caucuses, takes national Democratic lead

Steve Peoples, Michelle L. Price, Jonathan J. Cooper and Alexandra Jaffe
Associated Press
Casino workers hold up presidential preference cards as they support Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a presidential caucus at the Bellagio hotel-casino, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS – Bernie Sanders scored a resounding victory in Nevada’s presidential caucuses on Saturday, cementing his status as the Democrats’ national front-runner amid escalating tensions over whether he’s too liberal to defeat President Donald Trump.

While Sanders scored a strong victory, a cluster of candidates was fighting for a distant second place – and any momentum that may come with it heading into next-up South Carolina and then Super Tuesday on March 3. Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren were trailing far behind Sanders.

The 78-year-old Vermont senator successfully rallied his fiercely loyal base and tapped into support from Nevada’s large Latino community as the Democratic contest moved for the first time into a state with a significant minority population.

In a show of confidence, Sanders left Nevada early to rally supporters in Texas, which offers one of the biggest delegate troves in just 10 days on Super Tuesday. The progressive senator told cheering supporters in El Paso that Trump is “a pathological liar running a corrupt administration.”

“When we come together there is nothing we can’t accomplish,” Sanders declared.

The win built on Sanders’ win earlier this month in the New Hampshire primary. He essentially tied for first place in the Iowa caucuses with Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has sought to position himself as an ideological counter to Sanders’ unabashed progressive politics, but was fighting for a distant second place in Nevada.

The victory, while encouraging for Sanders supporters, only deepens concern among establishment-minded Democratic leaders who fear that the self-described democratic socialist is too extreme to defeat Trump. Sanders for decades has been calling for transformative policies to address inequities in politics and the economy, none bigger than his signature “Medicare for All” health care plan that would replace the private insurance system with a government-run universal system.

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Despite establishment anxiety, moderates are struggling to unify behind a single candidate, and the vote on Saturday was again split between several candidates.

Those included Massachusetts Sen. Warren, who desperately needed a spark to revive her stalled bid; billionaire Tom Steyer, who spent more than $12 million on Nevada television, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who hoped to prove her strong New Hampshire finish was no fluke.

Biden claimed success – but not victory – as he addressed cheering supporters in Las Vegas.

“Now we’re going on to South Carolina to win and we’re going to take this thing back,” he declared.

And without naming names, he took a swipe at Sanders and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who wasn’t on the Nevada ballot but has emerged as a threat to Biden in contests that begin next month.

After the chaos of Iowa’s caucuses, there were concerns about Nevada’s similar setup. But no major problems were in sight.

At noon, under sunny skies, dozens of uniformed housekeepers and casino workers cast ballots in the Bellagio, one of seven casino-resorts on the Las Vegas Strip among 200 locations statewide that hosted caucuses. Nevada is the third contest on a 2020 election calendar marked by chaos and uncertainty after the opening votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, overwhelmingly white, rural states.

The first presidential contest in the West tested the candidates’ strength with black and Latino voters for the first time in 2020. Nevada’s population aligns more with the U.S. as a whole, compared with Iowa and New Hampshire: 29% Latino, 10% black and 9% Asian American and Pacific Islander.

The Nevada verdict represents the third in a primary season that will span all 50 states and several U.S. territories, ending only at the party’s national convention in July. But with two more rounds of voting scheduled over the next 10 days – including Super Tuesday’s massive delegate haul – the party may identify a consensus candidate long before the convention.

Sanders and his allies were increasingly confident about his strength in the race. In Nevada, he has strong support from Latinos and rank-and-file union workers who have warmed to his calls to transform the nation’s economy and political system to help the working class.

There was skepticism about Buttigieg’s ability to win over a more diverse set of voters after strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden, who struggled in those early states, looked to Nevada’s voters of color to prove he still had a viable path to the nomination.

Warren and Klobuchar were hoping to benefit from outside money from newly created super PACs.

Klobuchar, campaigning in her home state of Minnesota Saturday night, claimed Nevada success no matter what. “As usual I think we have exceeded expectations.”

New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who dominated the political conversation this week after a poor debate-stage debut, wasn’t on the ballot. He’s betting everything on a series of delegate-rich states that begin voting next month.

Trump weighed in on social media, continuing his weeks-long push to sow discord between Sanders and his Democratic rivals.

“Looks like Crazy Bernie is doing well in the Great State of Nevada. Biden & the rest look weak,” Trump tweeted. “Congratulations Bernie, & don’t let them take it away from you!”

The stakes were high for Nevada Democrats to avoid a repeat of the chaos in Iowa, and it appeared Saturday’s caucuses were largely successful.

Unlike state primaries and the November election, which are run by government officials, caucuses are overseen by state parties.

Nevada Democrats sought to minimize problems by creating multiple redundancies in their reporting system, relying on results called in by phone, a paper worksheet filled out by caucus organizers, a photo of that worksheet sent in by text message and electronic results captured with a Google form.

In addition, it appeared Nevada Democrats were able to successfully navigate a complicated process for adding early voting to the caucus process. Nearly 75,000 people cast early ballots over a four-day period, and the party was able to process those in time for Saturday so they could be integrated into the in-person vot.

At the Bellagio caucus site, 41-year-old Christian Nielsen, a scuba diver for the Cirque du Soleil show “O,” said he backed Sanders because he believes the country needs a “major change in the White House.”

“We need somebody in the White House who has been on the right side of history for their entire career, somebody who stands with the working class, and will make things more fair for everybody,” Nielsen said.

The Democrats’ 2020 nomination fight shifted beyond Nevada even before the final results were known.

Only Biden, Buttigieg and Steyer were still in the state when news of Sanders’ victory was announced.

Sanders and Klobuchar spent the night in Super Tuesday states. And Warren, who began Saturday in Las Vegas, was to finish the day in Washington state, which hosts its election on March 10 but has already begun offering early voting.

Peoples and Jaffe reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Ken Ritter and Nicholas Riccardi in Nevada and Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.