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Bernie faces a choice: Ease up or attack Hillary more

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie SandersBernie SandersBernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' Briahna Joy Gray: IRS needs proper enforcement mechanisms to tax wealthy Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  MORE faces a stark choice after suffering a defeat to rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy does Bernie Sanders want to quash Elon Musk's dreams? Republican legislators target private sector election grants How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 MORE in the New York primary.

The Vermont senator could maintain, or even escalate, his criticism of Clinton on issues such as her speeches to Wall Street. Or he could seek to dial down the tensions in the race, which could help unify the party heading into the Democratic National Convention this summer.

If he chooses to attack, Sanders risks creating a vicious circle, some Democratic insiders say.

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“He has … been in this situation where in order to break out, he gets more negative. But the more negative or strident he gets, the worse he does,” said strategist Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid. “In a classic campaign, you can’t get there unless you break some eggs. But the more eggs he breaks, the messier it gets and the worse it is for him.”

The loss in New York Tuesday came after Sanders suggested Clinton’s ties to big business made her “unqualified” to be president. He also mocked her refusal to make public the transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs. At several rallies, including one in Brooklyn two days before the primary, Sanders said Clinton’s words must have reached the standard of “Shakespearean prose,” given the $225,000 fee she received for delivering them.

But those lines of attack did not pay off for Sanders. He lost New York by 16 points — more than most polls had predicted — and appears to have little chance of overtaking Clinton in pledged delegates, barring an extraordinary change in the race.

Inside the Sanders campaign, there is considerable frustration at what aides see as an unfair double standard. Clinton and her allies play hardball themselves but, in the judgment of Team Sanders, do not receive harsh media coverage for doing so.

Aides to Sanders argue, for instance, that it was Clinton who started the “unqualified” flap by dodging the question of whether she thought Sanders was qualified to be president during a TV interview the morning after he beat her in the Wisconsin primary.

Still, the campaign seems to recognize that the tone of the New York fight did not do Sanders any favors.

Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, defended Sanders’s conduct in the furor over whether Clinton is or is not qualified, but he added, “The race doesn’t have to revolve around that.

“We are much better off just having dueling messages: They put their message out, we put our message out,” Devine said. “If they want to berate him repeatedly, he is going to defend himself.”

Devine also argued that the tenor of the New York campaign was in part a consequence of a “hothouse” media atmosphere in Manhattan. He said the states coming up next in the race — including Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where Sanders has high hopes — represent “a little more of a traditional environment” where “the tone might be a little different.”

Sanders’s decision about how to proceed with his campaign is complicated by the scale of the climb he now faces. Clinton expanded her lead in pledged delegates with her New York victory and, just as important, thwarted yet another effort by her rival to score the kind of big upset that might have transformed the race.

The former secretary of State was ahead by 277 pledged delegates as of Wednesday afternoon, according to The Associated Press’s delegate tracker. She has an even bigger lead among superdelegates.

That leaves many Democrats believing time has virtually run out for Sanders.

His “whole strategy has been based on surprising the Clinton campaign somewhere, and he is running out of places to do that,” said strategist Jamal Simmons. “I think we are moving toward the end of the nominating process, and it looks more and more likely that Secretary Clinton will be the nominee. So some degree of restraint is called for.”

The fear among some in the party is that continued attacks from Sanders will weaken Clinton for the fall — in part by deepening the alienation that many of his supporters already feel toward her.

Sanders on Wednesday made clear he thinks he’s still in the thick of the battle. 

In an email to supporters, he insisted, “We still have a path to the nomination.” And in an interview with MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki as the New York results were still coming in on Tuesday night, campaign manager Jeff Weaver said his team intended to spend the summer trying to flip superdelegates into Sanders’s column.

Those are the kind of tactics that put Democrats on edge.

“Part of the concern that people have about him is that he has not been a member of the Democratic Party,” said Simmons, “so people are not sure how invested he is in the success of the Democratic nominee.” Sanders has long been a political independent.

The tensions over Sanders’s presence in the Democratic race have repeatedly cropped up in his campaign’s dealings with the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC chairwoman, on Wednesday pushed back against allegations from the Sanders camp that there was something untoward about a joint fundraising agreement the Clinton campaign has with the committee. Earlier this year, the Sanders camp clashed with the DNC over the use of a voter database. 

With Democrats holding little leverage over Sanders, he’s likely in the race for the long haul, no matter what party leaders — or Clinton aides — say about his chances. 

“Bernie is going to stay in this thing until all the voters have a chance to vote for him,” Devine said. “If they are saying he shouldn’t, they’re wasting their time.”