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Sanders camp signals his presidential campaign will go on

Bernie Sanders' campaign announced a new push for the New York primary and said he would debate again if a debate is scheduled.
Image: Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a Democratic presidential candidate, speaks at the South Carolina Democratic State Convention in Columbia, South Carolina, on June 22, 2019.Sean Rayford / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Lacking a meaningful path to the Democratic nomination at a moment when the coronavirus crisis is gripping Washington and the country, Bernie Sanders stepped back from actively campaigning for president over the past week, leading some Democrats to wonder whether he would soon leave the race altogether.

But Tuesday, Sanders appeared to signal anew that he is in the race for the long haul: His campaign announced a full organizing effort ahead of New York's scheduled April 28 primary, and a spokesman said he would participate in a debate with former Vice President Joe Biden — if there is one.

"Bernie Sanders is still a candidate for the Democratic nomination," senior adviser Jeff Weaver told NBC News on Tuesday in response to a question about the New York efforts. "One of the things that means is working to secure votes in future contests."

Publicly, Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, has targeted his attention and comments to his work in the Senate as Congress readies a legislative response to the crisis. Advisers say he's balanced his responsibilities, privately seeking input from supporters to "assess a path forward" for his presidential campaign — and his larger political movement.

"We are in a bizarre moment," Sanders admitted Monday night in an interview on MSNBC's "All In with Chris Hayes," adding, "so what we are doing is transitioning our campaign to a virtual campaign."

"We're kind of moving day by day," Sanders said later.

That message has led to mixed signals from his campaign about the path forward.

Most of his traditional campaign operations have halted, and for the past week there have been no in-person events, no paid advertising and no way to earn real media attention as the pandemic and the economic crisis have pushed the election out of the headlines.

But while Sanders has avoided a direct decision or announcement about what lies ahead, his campaign has maintained both a policy effort and a virtual push to continue building support.

In announcing its efforts in delegate-rich New York, Sanders' campaign touted thousands of volunteers joining an organizing call, later committing to 1,300 digital voter outreach shifts. Rafael Návar, who led Sanders' winning California operation, has moved his focus to New York as the campaign's state director.

New York is the center of the coronavirus pandemic, far outpacing any other state in its numbers of diagnoses and deaths. While other states with coming primaries have pushed back their election dates, New York has not yet made a similar move.

Asked about escalating a campaign operation amid a growing health emergency, a state campaign aide suggested that in a time of "social distancing," people are searching for ways to connect and engage with one another and are using his campaign to do it.

Sanders, for his part, has stayed publicly focused on combating the crisis. He's held five coronavirus-focused livestream events involving musical performances and top endorsers to mirror his campaign events of the past.

The streams, each quickly earning well over a millions views, have provided an easy and unchallenged outlet for Sanders to share information and push for his policy prescriptions, especially "Medicare for All."

The Sanders campaign has also used its massive social media following and email and texts list to push donations to nine relief organizations, a notable shift from primary election footing.

But his path forward is still unclear. Including his win among Democrats Abroad on Monday, Sanders has won only nine of the 29 contests held so far. According to the NBC News delegate count, he trails Biden by more than 300 delegates and would have to win about 63 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to clinch the nomination on the first ballot.

Yet none of this has stopped his most devoted supporters and staffers from continuing their attacks on Biden — aggressively responding to criticism from other Democrats, mocking Biden and continuing the fight against "the establishment."

"I continue my critiques against Biden, in some ways just even, with the hope that his team and other people see them and try to improve," Shaun King, a top Sanders surrogate, told NBC News after using twitter to dismiss a short coronavirus video posted by Biden as “a rambling mess.”

“I still feel very strongly that Biden would waffle and struggle against Trump,” King explained.

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While Biden's campaign touts its strong delegate advantage, the former vice president has publicly held back on pressuring Sanders to drop his campaign. "It's up to Bernie what he wants to do," he said in an appearance Tuesday on "The View."

Richard Rodriguez, a board member of Our Revolution, the outside group founded by Sanders to promote and nationally organize around his policies, said his advice would be to "stay in!"

"Now people are looking at things in a new context and new light," Rodriguez said. "As families come together, they are looking at the quality of their health care."

He said Our Revolution has shifted messaging in recent weeks as the coronavirus crisis has escalated, increasing the push for Medicare for All and opposing the for-profit health care industry "now more than ever before."