The Memo: Democratic rivals have seven days to stop Sanders

Rival candidates have just a week to stop Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - House to pass relief bill; Trump moves to get US back to work Oil price drop threatens US fracking boom Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines MORE if they hope to prevent the Independent from Vermont from taking the party’s presidential nomination.

Sanders is the undisputed front-runner in the race after his thumping victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday. 

His current trajectory is set to carry him to at least a top-two finish in South Carolina’s primary Saturday. From there, he looks likely to roll through Super Tuesday on March 3, harvesting huge numbers of delegates from California and other large states.

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It is eminently plausible that, by the end of that night, Sanders will have jumped out to a delegate lead that none of his rivals can reel in — especially given the likelihood that more than a half-dozen other major candidates remain in the race. 

It’s a prospect that thrills his supporters — and horrifies Democrats who fear the democratic socialist would lose a general election to President TrumpDonald John TrumpDefense industrial base workers belong at home during this public health crisis Maduro pushes back on DOJ charges, calls Trump 'racist cowboy' House leaders hope to vote Friday on coronavirus stimulus MORE.

Sanders has a real chance of winning the South Carolina primary. Such a result would likely mark the de facto end of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - House to pass relief bill; Trump moves to get US back to work Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines Sanders charges forward with 2020 bid despite long odds MORE’s campaign — and give Sanders unstoppable momentum going into Super Tuesday.

“If he wins South Carolina, the train has left the station,” said one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to discuss the state of the race.

The Vermont senator’s strength in California is especially important. There are 415 delegates up for grabs in the Golden State — the single biggest prize in any primary. Even though the state’s primary is not winner-take-all, sizable margins for Sanders could catapult him way ahead.

Sanders currently has an 11-point lead in California, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

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The speed at which Sanders has moved into a dominant position has left many more moderate Democrats both disconcerted and panicked.

There is not a great deal of empirical evidence to support their charge that he is unelectable. In polls that measure hypothetical match-ups with Trump, Sanders does not perform notably worse than other candidates.

But Democrats who are skeptical of Sanders had their nerves jangled again Sunday by comments he made about Fidel Castro, the late Cuban president.

Sanders was asked during a CBS “60 Minutes” interview about his past praise for elements of Castro’s government, and essentially repeated his view. 

“When Fidel Castro came to office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?” Sanders said — even though he also condemned Castro’s authoritarianism.

Rivals including Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg blasted Sanders for the remarks. Democratic members of Congress joined the chorus of condemnation — Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-PowellDebbie Mucarsel-PowellCritics hit Florida governor over lack of 'sweeping' coronavirus response Hispanic Democrats demand funding for multilingual coronavirus messaging Members of House GOP leadership self-quarantining after first lawmakers test positive MORE (D-Fla.) called the comments “absolutely unacceptable” — and the Democratic Party of Florida also distanced itself.

The furor was important because, to some, it raised new questions about Sanders’s ability to carry the crucial state of Florida, where about 7 percent of the population is Cuban American. 

The Sunshine State has been decided by margins of 3 percentage points or less in the past three presidential elections.

Of course, there are plenty of more general concerns expressed by centrist Democrats.

Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that Sanders was “stoppable” in his march toward the nomination. 

“But I would say this: The moderates need to coalesce around one person,” Emanuel added.  

There is no sign that is about to happen. 

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Democrats who have hoped that the party would opt for a more centrist nominee than Sanders have been frustrated to see several candidates split moderate support, including Biden, Bloomberg, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocratic senators call on FDA to drop restrictions on blood donations from men who have sex with men Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting Klobuchar says her husband has been released from hospital, 'recovering at home' MORE (D-Minn.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE (D).

Meanwhile, progressives have largely coalesced around Sanders as Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocratic senators call on FDA to drop restrictions on blood donations from men who have sex with men HuffPost reporter: Coronavirus rescue package designed for 'super rich' Schumer: Senate should 'explore' remote voting if coronavirus sparks lengthy break MORE (D-Mass.) has underperformed expectations.

The prospect of one or more of the remaining major candidates dropping out before Super Tuesday is undercut by a basic fact. They’re not in the race to thwart Sanders specifically; they are in it to try to win the White House themselves. 

For Sanders supporters, events are unspooling almost exactly as they predicted.

“There is nothing you can point to that would suggest anything other than that he will maintain strength, fundraise at a gargantuan scale and continue to get more delegates,” said Jonathan Tasini, a Democratic strategist who supports Sanders but has no role in his campaign.

Alluding to Sanders’s strength in California and elsewhere, Tasini suggested that Sanders could be in an almost impregnable position by the next date for multiple primaries. Six states vote on March 10.

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“By the time we get to the next wave — Super Tuesday Two — no one will be able to catch him,” Tasini predicted.

Unaligned strategists argue that, even now, there is a tendency to underestimate Sanders’s position. 

“If Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren had done what Bernie just did, there would be no hesitation. They would be the front-runner,” said one such strategist, Joel Payne.

Payne added that the desperate search on the part of some Democrats for a way to derail Sanders was simply another testament to his strength.

“If there is an ‘Anybody but …’ campaign, go with the ‘but’,” Payne said. “It probably means that the ‘but’ person is formidable enough that they are going to be hard to stop.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.