Democratic presidential race comes into sharp focus

The largest field of Democratic presidential candidates in modern history has given voters heartburn for the last year, overwhelming them with a plethora of ideological and demographic choices.

But in the 48 hours after former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPresidents and 'presidents' Biden to blast Trump's church photo op in Philadelphia speech Rudy Giuliani calls on Cuomo to remove Bill de Blasio MORE’s big victory in South Carolina’s primary, the battle for the Democratic nomination came into stark focus.

Biden is now the clear establishment pick in what is quickly becoming a two-person race with Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive things to watch in Tuesday's primaries Nina Turner responds to Cornel West's remarks about George Floyd COVID-19 pandemic will shrink economy by trillion in next decade: CBO MORE (I-Vt.), the front-runner so far who seems poised for a big night on Super Tuesday.

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The Democratic establishment lined up behind Biden on Monday as he raked in endorsements while second-tier candidates dropped by the wayside.  

Just weeks ago, Biden’s campaign seemed on life support. He finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa, did not qualify for delegates in New Hampshire and placed a distant second in Nevada. At times, it appeared his long-touted firewall of African American voters in South Carolina was cracking under Sanders’s sustained assault.

Biden’s hopes were rescued by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose influential endorsement days before the Palmetto State’s primary vaulted the former vice president back into the lead. He took nearly half the vote there Saturday, winning nearly two-thirds of the delegates on offer and vaulting him into second place behind Sanders in the hunt for delegates.

The results convinced billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom SteyerTom SteyerBloomberg wages war on COVID-19, but will he abandon his war on coal? Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout MORE to quit the race Saturday, former Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Here's how Biden can win over the minority vote and the Rust Belt MORE to end his campaign on Sunday night, and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharBottom line Judd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not Vogue's Anna Wintour urges Biden to pick woman of color for VP MORE (D-Minn.) to drop out Monday. Klobuchar said she would endorse Biden; Buttigieg is expected to do so as well.

They joined a cascade of current and former party leaders lining up behind Biden just hours before the polls open on Super Tuesday: Reps. Gil CisnerosGilbert (Gil) Ray CisnerosMORE (D-Calif.) and Veronica EscobarVeronica EscobarThe DACA recipients protecting all Americans The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pence visits Orlando as all 50 states reopen The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin, Powell: Economy may need more boost; Trump defends malaria drug MORE (D-Texas), Sens. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthBiden unveils disability rights plan: 'Your voices must be heard' Warren calls for investigation into OSHA inspections during pandemic Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers MORE (D-Ill.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineGeorge Floyd's death ramps up the pressure on Biden for a black VP Overnight Health Care: Trump says US 'terminating' relationship with WHO | Cuomo: NYC on track to start reopening week of June 8 | COVID-19 workplace complaints surge 10 things to know today about coronavirus MORE (D-Va.), and former Sens. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidCortez Masto says she's not interested in being Biden VP Nevada congressman admits to affair after relationship divulged on podcast Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil MORE (D-Nev.) and Mark UdallMark Emery UdallThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Democratic presidential race comes into sharp focus Democrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump MORE (D-Colo.).

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“Ten days ago people were asking if Biden would even make it to Super Tuesday, and now 12 hours before polls open and three of his rivals drop out, two endorsed him, he picked up about a dozen congressional endorsements, a few senators and the former leader of the Senate Democratic caucus,” said Lily Adams, who ran communications for Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris: Trump 'just tear-gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op' Harris, Jeffries question why Manafort, Cohen released while others remain in prison George Floyd's death ramps up the pressure on Biden for a black VP MORE’s (D-Calif.) presidential campaign. “It’s like the 12 days of political Christmas for Joe Biden wrapped up into the last 90 minutes.”

The crystalizing rush of action in the hours before Super Tuesday voters get to weigh in reflected both the narrow paths to the nomination that candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar faced, even after their impressive showings in early states, and rising concerns within the Democratic Party’s more moderate leadership that Sanders cannot win a general election.

But it is not clear that the bandwagon-jumping came soon enough to deny Sanders what is likely to be a strong performance in Super Tuesday states across the country. Millions of votes have already been cast in states like California, Texas and North Carolina, the biggest prizes on the line. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg remains in the race, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on television advertising.

It is also not certain what role another prominent candidate, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenGeorge Floyd's death ramps up the pressure on Biden for a black VP Judd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not Vogue's Anna Wintour urges Biden to pick woman of color for VP MORE (D-Mass.), will play on Tuesday. Warren has positioned herself as Sanders’s ideological equal, but in reality she has competed for votes with Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

“Tomorrow we’ll get a sense if it’s enough for [Biden] and he will either ride a wave or hit a wall, but it’s hard to imagine a better lead up,” Adams said.

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The frenetic actions in the last hours before Super Tuesday stand in stark contrast with the Republican race four years ago, when so many candidates continued their increasingly long shot bids in hopes of becoming the last person not named Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE in the race. By the time the race was down to two non-Trump contenders, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHillicon Valley: Facebook employees speak up against content decisions | Trump's social media executive order on weak legal ground | Order divides conservatives Ted Cruz criticizes Justin Timberlake tweet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US MORE (R-Texas) and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), Trump had effectively locked up the race.

“In 2016, too many Republicans believed for far too long that Trump couldn't win the GOP nomination, and never coalesced around a single alternative candidate,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) campaign. 

“The mainstream Democratic candidates are dropping out and endorsing the Democratic candidate they now see as most likely to beat Trump, before the crucial primaries that could yield Sen. Sanders a plurality of the delegates needed for the nomination,” Steel said. “They may not be successful, but they are putting what they see as the best interests of the Democratic party, and the country, ahead of their own self-interest.”

Still, Biden has work to do before he reclaims his position as the race’s front-runner. He will fall behind Sanders in the delegate race when Tuesday’s votes are counted, potentially by a significant margin. The race is then likely to become a long slog toward Milwaukee, heading through six contests on March 10, another four on March 17 and 11 more in April.

Biden had several of the best fundraising days of his entire campaign over the weekend, pulling in $5 million each on successive days. But Sanders’s fundraising juggernaut hauled in $46 million for the month of February, a mind-blowing pace that shows the power of the movement he has spent five years building.

The sprawling Democratic field has finally winnowed itself. Unlike Republicans, they have done so long before anyone can call themselves a presumptive nominee. But like Republicans, many nervous Democrats are still wondering whether they waited too long.