Bernie Sanders will stay in the 2020 race after latest primary setback

Key Points
  • Bernie Sanders said he will stay in the 2020 presidential race through Sunday's Democratic debate with Joe Biden. 
  • On Tuesday, he lost Democratic primaries in Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi and Idaho, while winning North Dakota's caucus, according to NBC News projections. 
  • Washington's primary is still too close to call as votes trickle in. 
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a press conference at his campaign office in Burlington, Vermont, March 4, 2020.
Caitlin Ochs | Reuters

Bernie Sanders vowed Wednesday to push forward in the 2020 presidential race despite the latest series of blows to his White House ambitions, including campaign challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Vermont senator admitted that Tuesday "was not a good night for our campaign from a delegate point of view." Even so, he said he would stay in the race at least through Sunday's debate with former Vice President Joe Biden. 

"Donald Trump must be defeated, and I will do everything in my power to make that happen. On Sunday night, in the first one-on-one debate of this campaign, the American people will have the opportunity to see which candidate is best positioned to accomplish that goal," Sanders told reporters at his Vermont headquarters. He spoke in Burlington on Wednesday for the first time since another round of Democratic primaries squeezed his hopes of winning the party's presidential nomination. 

Results from "Big Tuesday" all but quashed the Vermont senator's push to rack up a majority of pledged delegates. Carried by projected wins in Mississippi, Missouri, Idaho and all important Michigan, Biden took a decisive step toward facing Trump in November. Sanders will win North Dakota's caucus, while Washington state's primary is still too close to call, according to NBC News projections.

The coronavirus outbreak has also hampered Sanders' efforts to keep pace with Biden. The senator, who relies on jammed indoor events to muster support more than his rival does, had to cancel a Cleveland rally Tuesday because of the crisis. Biden also canceled a primary night event in Cleveland and addressed a smaller group of supporters in Philadelphia for his victory speech.

Sanders, the race's front-runner a mere two weeks ago, now needs a rapid turnaround — the likes of which Biden saw when his campaign floundered ahead of the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29. The coming days may offer his last chance to alter the race.  

Joe Biden wins Michigan primary and cements front-runner status over Bernie Sanders

Sunday night in Arizona, the firebrand senator will debate Biden one-on-one for the first time. He hopes a strong performance will help him in next Tuesday's contests in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, where a total of nearly 600 pledged delegates is at stake. 

Biden has led polls of Florida, the day's biggest prize, by a wide margin. 

Coronavirus has also affected the debate, which will lack a live audience because of fears about the outbreak.

Sanders had some candid moments Wednesday in describing his campaign's struggles. However, he pointed to what he considers his campaign's major triumphs in a race that has slipped out of his grasp.

"What became even more apparent yesterday is that while we are currently losing the delegate count, … we are strongly winning in two enormously important areas which will determine the future of our country," he said, referring to his "progressive agenda" and support with young voters. 

Sanders touted surveys showing support for proposals such as higher taxes on the wealthy, a $15 per hour minimum wage and tuition-free public college. 

The White House hopeful also contended "we are winning the generational debate" as young voters overwhelmingly support his campaign in primaries. However, exit polls show Sanders has struggled to boost turnout among young voters as Biden dominates among older Democrats, a more reliable section of the electorate.

In a message to the "Democratic establishment" he often torches, Sanders declared that "in order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country and you must speak to the issues of concern to them."

The self-described democratic socialist admitted "we are losing the debate over electability." Sanders said some voters have told him they think Biden is best equipped to beat Trump in November. 

"Needlessly to say, I strongly disagree with that assertion," he said.

Sanders previewed the areas in which he plans to draw a distinction from Biden on Sunday, including on health-care costs and his signature "Medicare for All" proposal. He criticized his rival for recently saying he would veto the single-payer insurance system because of its high cost.

Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said Tuesday that the former vice president "made clear that his urgent priority is getting to universal coverage as quickly as possible," starting with a "Medicare-like public option." 

The Democratic front-runner started to sound like a general election candidate after his Michigan triumph on Tuesday night. He said he wanted to "thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion."

"We share a common goal and together we'll defeat Donald Trump," Biden said. 

— CNBC's Tucker Higgins contributed to this report

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