MOUNT PLEASANT, South Carolina — The black mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, is offering Democrats a dire warning: If Sen. Bernard Sanders wins the party’s presidential nomination, they can kiss beating President Trump and controlling either chamber of Congress goodbye.
Despite Michael Bloomberg’s poor debate performance last week, Columbia Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin said the best way to prevent Mr. Sanders from claiming the nomination is for the party to rally behind the former New York City mayor, which will become the clear path forward if South Carolina delivers a death blow to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s stumbling bid.
“If the vice president doesn’t overperform the way that he has promised, then I think it is time to clear the field and let Mike Bloomberg take Bernie Sanders head on, on Super Tuesday,” Mr. Benjamin said in an interview with The Washington Times.
Voters will have their say in the primary contest Saturday.
Coming on the heels of a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and first-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Sanders’ landslide win in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday has reinforced the idea that he has the clearest path to becoming the party’s standard bearer against Mr. Trump.
That prospect is sending shivers through the less liberal ranks of the Democratic Party and fueling concerns that time could be running out to prevent what some are predicting would be an electoral nightmare for Democrats.
“If Bernie Sanders wins the nomination, we will lose the White House, the Senate and the House majority,” said Mr. Benjamin, who has served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“If you start the conversation off with [telling] 150 million Americans ‘I am going to take away your health care,’ it makes it incredibly difficult for even staunch Democrats — certainly for those who might be more moderate — to make a Sanders decision and it’s going to affect the entire ticket,” he said.
That “absolutely” could make life harder here in South Carolina for Rep. Joe Cunningham in his re-election push in a competitive district and for Jaime Harrison in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, he said.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a top black power broker in Washington and in South Carolina, has delivered a similar critique, saying voters could be turned off by Mr. Sanders’ “socialist” label, while also signaling he plans to endorse Mr. Biden.
On Monday, Mr. Sanders’ rivals continued the pig pile on him.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg told voters at a campaign event in North Charleston that the Sanders brand of politics is too divisive to develop a winning coalition in the 2020 general election.
“I believe the only way to actually achieve our goals … is by calling as many people as we can into this movement, not by calling people names online when we disagree with us,” he said.
The Biden campaign criticized the Vermont senator for asserting over the weekend that it is “unfair” to say that everything is bad about Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
“His admiration for elements of Castro’s dictatorship or at least willingness to look past Cuba’s human rights violations is not just dangerous, it is deeply offensive to the many people in Florida, New Jersey and across the country that have fled political persecution and sought refuge in the United States,” said Biden senior adviser Cristóbal Alex.
Mr. Sanders and his backers counter that the recent attacks smack of desperation and show the “establishment” is running scared.
“As our movement grows, we will be attacked,” Mr. Sanders said Sunday on Twitter. “But our job now is to bring people together in a multi-racial, multi-generational movement for real change. When we stand together, we will defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country.”
Mr. Sanders has won 35 of the 1,991 pledged delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot at the national convention.
Mr. Buttigieg is running second with 24 delegates, followed by Mr. Biden, 10, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 8, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, 7.
South Carolina has 54 delegates on the line. Perhaps more importantly there are bragging rights for the candidates seeking to claim the anti-Sanders mantle in the race ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries, where one-third of all the pledged delegates will be up for grabs.
Mr. Biden leads South Carolina polls.
But he has failed to totally capitalize on the nostalgia for the Obama years that awaited him when he dived into the race, particularly in diverse states such as South Carolina.
“Joe Biden is a good man, but he is not Barack Obama,” Mr. Benjamin said.
Mr. Sanders and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer have benefited the most from Mr. Biden’s struggles, while the other top contenders — Mr. Buttigieig, Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Warren — have struggled with black voters.
The muddle has provided hope for Mr. Bloomberg. He is skipping the first four nominating contests, and instead gone on a television spending spree in the 14 Super Tuesday states.
Signs show the strategy working. Polls have showed him on the rise, including with black voters.
But his image took a hit in his first debate appearance last week.
His 2020 rivals skewered his support of “stop and frisk” policing tactics as mayor and accused him of trying to hide sexual harassment allegations that women at his company leveled against him.
Political analysts say the jury is out on the Bloomberg experiment.
“I think he is doing everything he can with his outreach, his investments across the country in trying to penetrate the African American community,” said Antjuan Seawright, South Carolina Democratic strategist and CEO of the firm Blueprint Strategy.
“I do think he is hitting some walls in some places because of his record of policies such as stop and frisk,” he said. “Black mothers will never forget their black sons being thrown against the wall and all the things that came as a result of his policies in New York as mayor.”
Mr. Benjamin said Mr. Bloomberg has built a nationwide operation that is built for the long haul, and said he is well-positioned to fill the anti-Sanders role — particularly when the conversation turns to the issues that matter most to voters: bolstering jobs, protecting their health care coverage, and defeating Mr. Trump.
“He’s a grinder,” he said.
• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.
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