An emboldened Joe Biden tried to cast himself as the clear moderate alternative to progressive Bernie Sanders on Sunday as the Democrats' shrinking presidential field raced toward Super Tuesday.
One of Mr. Biden's leading moderate rivals, former small-city mayor Pete Buttigieg, dropped out of the campaign just 24 hours after Mr. Biden scored a resounding victory in South Carolina, his first of the 2020 rollercoaster nomination fight.
“The truth is the path has narrowed to a close for our candidacy if not for our cause,” Mr. Buttigieg told supporters in South Bend, Indiana, Sunday. “We must recognize that at this point in the race, the best way to keep faith with those goals and ideals is to step aside and help bring our party and country together.”
He didn't endorse any of his former rivals, though he and Mr. Biden traded voicemails on Sunday. Mr. Buttigieg has spent the past several weeks warning that nominating progressive leader Sen. Bernie Sanders to take on President Donald Trump would be risky.
While other rivals appeared undeterred, Mr. Biden pressed his case during a round of national television interviews that reflected a stark reality a day after his resounding primary victory in South Carolina: The former vice president was forced to rely upon free media coverage because he was understaffed, underfunded, and almost out of time as he fought to transform his sole win into a national movement.
Mr. Biden vowed to improve his campaign operation, his fundraising haul – and even his own performance – in an interview Sunday on ABC's “This Week.” He warned of a “stark choice” between him and Mr. Sanders, while making the case he was the candidate who could win up and down the ballot and in states beyond those voting next week.
Mr. Biden added a swipe at one of Mr. Sanders' signature lines during an appearance on “Fox New Sunday”: “The people aren't looking for revolution. They're looking for results."
The newfound confidence came at a crossroads in the Democratic Party's turbulent primary season. Mr. Sanders remained the undisputed front-runner. But the rest of the field was decidedly unsettled, even after Mr. Biden's South Carolina blowout and Mr. Buttigieg's sudden departure.
Most notably, New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg could create problems for Mr. Biden as the race sped toward Super Tuesday, when 14 states from Maine to Alabama to California hold Democratic elections as the 2020 primary moved into a new phase. No longer would individual states hold primaries every week. Starting Tuesday, and most Tuesdays through early June, batches of states would vote at the same time in what had essentially become a national election.
Mr. Biden claimed a handful of new endorsements and fundraising successes on Sunday in his quest to project strength. At the same time, a handful of high-profile political strategists with ties to former President Barack Obama encouraged Mr. Biden's rivals –including Bloomberg – to quit the race to allow anti-Sanders' Democrats to unify behind Mr. Obama's former vice president.
“Most of them have seen the writing on the wall for at least the last week,” said Rufus Gifford, who held top fundraising posts on both of Mr. Obama’s campaigns and was part of Mr. Biden’s fundraising operation. “It’s clear the Democratic alternative to Bernie Sanders is Joe Biden.”
Text messages reviewed by The Associated Press revealed an outpouring of interest in Mr. Biden from donors supporting other candidates, including Mr. Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren.
Mr. Biden announced he took in $5 million immediately after his South Carolina win, by far his best single day of fundraising over the last year.
Also on Sunday, however, Mr. Sanders announced he had raised an eye-popping $46.5 million for February. That compared to $29 million for Ms. Warren and $18 million for Mr. Biden over the same period.
Mr. Sanders, who dominated the money race for much of the year even though he did not court wealthy donors, said it was not the overhaul fundraising haul that should impress but the enthusiasm of working people fueling his candidacy.
“No campaign out there has a stronger grassroots movement than we do,” Mr. Sanders said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “That's how you beat Trump.”
Mr. Biden allies conceded that the post-South Carolina fundraising surge would have little impact on Super Tuesday.
“Super Tuesday is too close,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Biden supporter. “Fortunately, Joe Biden has been on the national scene for 35 years. He has less need to advertise.”
Barry Goodman, a top Biden donor in Michigan and a prominent member of the Democratic National Committee, said he’d heard from about “a dozen or so” regular party donors who had been on the sidelines and now wanted to support Mr. Biden. He said he had personally targeted at least 20 Bloomberg supporters who had been sitting on their checkbooks at Mr. Bloomberg's request.
“If Mike had known what was going to happen last night in South Carolina, he’d never have gotten in,” Mr. Goodman said.
While Mr. Buttigieg bowed to the pressure, Mr. Biden's other rivals showed no interest in getting out of the race. In fact, some vowed to keep fighting no matter what happened on Super Tuesday.
Warren campaign manager Roger Lau spoke brazenly of pushing into a floor battle at the Democratic National Convention this summer if no candidate emerged from the primary season with a clear majority, which was possible even if someone had a large delegate lead.
“The convention in Milwaukee is the final play,” Mr. Lau wrote in a Sunday memo.
And Mr. Bloomberg, who this week will be on the ballot for the first time, insisted that he was not going anywhere before Tuesday’s primaries.
“I’m optimistic," he told voters in Selma, Alabama, where many of the White House hopefuls gathered for ceremonies commemorating civil rights heroism.
Yet Mr. Bloomberg received a mixed reception as he spoke from the pulpit of Selma's Brown Chapel AME Church. Multiple parishioners stood and turned their backs to the New York billionaire neared the end of his 10-minute speech. That was after the pastor told the congregation that Mr. Bloomberg initially said he was too busy to attend because he had to “beat Donald Trump.”
Mr. Biden declined to ask rivals to bow out when given the opportunity. “It’s not for me to tell another candidate to get out of the race,” Mr. Biden said on Fox.
Mr. Biden got 48% of the South Carolina vote, Sen. Bernie Sanders got 19.9%, Tom Steyer finished with 11.3% (and promptly dropped out of the race). Mr. Buttigieg received 8.2%, Sen. Elizabeth Warren 7.1%, and Amy Klobuchar 3.2%.
Through four primary contests, the AP allocated at least 58 delegates to Mr. Sanders, including two added Sunday as South Carolina's remaining votes dribbled in. Mr. Biden vaulted past Mr. Buttigieg into second place with at least 50 delegates – shrinking Mr. Sanders' lead from what had been 30 delegates before South Carolina to eight. Mr. Buttigieg, Ms. Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar remained stuck at 26, eight and seven, respectively.
But the first four states were always more about momentum more than math. Super Tuesday states offer a trove of 1,344 new delegates based on how candidates finish. California alone offers 415, which is more than double the amount of delegates allocated through Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.
As Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg courted African Americans in Alabama, Mr. Sanders spent his Sunday rallying thousands of supporters in California, the crown jewel of Super Tuesday.
The Vermont senator predicted victory in California and attacked Mr. Biden's record on foreign policy, trade, and Social Security, among other issues.
“My point here is not just to be negative about Joe. My point here is to ask you, ‘What campaign is going to beat Donald Trump?’" Mr. Sanders said. He added: "We are going to win because we have the strongest grassroots movement – multi-racial and multi-generational – in the history of this country."
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Mr. Peoples reported from Washington and Mr. Barrow reported from Columbia, South Carolina. AP writers Brian Slodysko, Will Weissert, Hope Yen, and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.