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To avoid November catastrophe, Democrats have to KO Sanders

Democratic rivals got Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver Ocasio-Cortez rolls out Twitch channel to urge voting Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas MORE (I-Vt.) on the ropes last night but didn't come close to finishing him off.

The Vermont socialist, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, was grilled on his "radical" notions ranging from eliminating private health insurance to a massive expansion of federal spending and taxes, former support for the gun lobby, modified praise for authoritarian left-wing governments like Cuba and his coolness to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama to campaign for Biden in Florida Jaime Harrison on Lindsey Graham postponing debate: 'He's on the verge of getting that one-way ticket back home' Quinnipiac poll reports Biden leading Trump by 8 points in Pennsylvania MORE.

The most telling point may have been scored by former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 MORE, who noted that Russia's election meddling isn’t as much about party as it is sowing chaos and said, “If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE.”

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Yet the format and other candidates militated against sustained attack. Sanders took some blows and was on the defensive more than usual — but he left the stage standing.

Billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergEverytown hits GOP on gun safety in closing .5M battleground ad barrage A closing argument: Why voters cannot trust Trump on healthcare Biden campaign swamps Trump on TV airwaves MORE recouped a little from a dreadful performance in the Nevada debate a week earlier, while still taking hits. He displayed keen knowledge on an issue like education and remarkably was the first candidate to mention the coronavirus epidemic an hour and seven minutes into the debate. He also parried assaults from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver Democratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race MORE, who didn't match her forceful presence of the previous debate.

The two most forceful advocates were Buttigieg, who consistently returned to Sanders's deficiencies as a general election candidate, and especially former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE, who was on fire — going after Sanders's earlier opposition to gun control measures and offering an appealing message to African Americans who'll comprise over half the Democratic electorate in Saturday’s primary in South Carolina.

South Carolina is must-win for Biden to remain competitive three days later in a semi-national primary, Super Tuesday: 14 states — from California to Texas to Massachusetts — electing over one-third of the delegates to the Democratic national convention in July.

It's also essential to stop the momentum of Sanders, who won two of the first three contests and seems well-positioned in a number of Super Tuesday states.

Many top Democrats, including congressional leaders, are wringing their hands over Sanders winning the party nomination. They fear, with cause, that it will mean four more years of Donald Trump, Republican control of both houses of Congress and Republicans in a position to dominate redistricting after the 2020 census.

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If that nightmare occurs, it will have been facilitated by other Democrats. The 77-year-old Biden's candidacy blocked other mainstream progressives from getting into the race or advancing. 

Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDurbin signals he isn't interested in chairing Judiciary Committee Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing MORE's hyped New Hampshire debate performance catapulted her into third place, but also enabled Sanders to deny Buttigieg a victory. Or suppose Warren and others had focused as much fire in the Nevada debate on Sanders, the front-runner, as they did on Bloomberg. 

The narrative would be different today if Sanders had won Nevada but only after losing the first two contests. Or if this week billionaire Tom SteyerTom SteyerDemocrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein 2020 election already most expensive ever TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month MORE, who has advertised significantly in South Carolina, had thrown his support to help Biden deal a critical setback to Sanders in the Palmetto State.

Everyone has a right to run for president and to campaign as they see fit. But there have been consequences.

After South Carolina, Democrats then have to figure out how to stop Sanders from getting anywhere close to a majority of delegates going into the July Milwaukee convention. 

If Biden doesn't win South Carolina, what's the best alternative? If Bloomberg remains a pedestrian candidate, is his money better spent on an anti-Sanders campaign than for his own candidacy? If either of the first two are not the case, should Buttigieg bow out for one of the others? If the goal is to stop an unelectable Sanders, is it better for Warren to stay in or get out?

Ganging up on Bernie won't look good and may cause left-wing defections. It's better than a November catastrophe.

The case against Sanders is compelling if made forcefully and substantively. First, dismiss the polls that show today he's running as well against Trump as any of the others, a point Sanders made during the debate. Those polls are before the Republican attack machine kicks in, which will make the Democrats look like Quaker pacifists. 

The Russians probably are interfering again, this time on behalf of Trump and Sanders. They are evil, but not stupid, and see the Vermont socialist as weak against their preferred candidate, the incumbent. (Sanders, to his credit, told the Russians to stay the hell away, in contrast to Trump.)

Then consider the mainstream Democratic candidates, House incumbents in competitive districts and Senate challengers who will determine whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Trump casts doubt on hopes for quick stimulus deal after aides expressed optimism Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid MORE (R-Ky.) keeps his Republican majority — they represent the districts and states that a Democrat has to carry to win the presidency. None, Buttigieg noted, are supportive of Sanders heading the national ticket.

The leftist myth that the energy and enthusiasm of young and disaffected voters for a radical agenda will produce a record turnout surge? Forget it. Ruy Teixeira, a liberal Democrat and student of voting patterns, labels this the “magical … pixie dust” theory; overwhelming data from elections, he notes, including the big Democratic victories in 2018, are attributable to persuasion — getting independents and soft Republicans — not a turnout surge.

To take on the Vermont socialist, Democrats need to stick with the facts: His proposals to end private health insurance, impose big taxes (on the middle class, not just the rich), ban all fracking, give convicted murderers and rapists the right to vote, his empathy for some left-wing dictators, changing positions on gun control and immigration and what experts he turns to for advice.

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It should not be ad hominem attacks like one bloviator who likened Bernie taking over the Democrats to the Nazis conquering France in 1940. And Democrats should sharply take issue with right-wing demagogues like White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien, who while pretending he knows little about Russian help for Trump, charged it's not surprising they're helping Sanders, who he observed took his honeymoon in the former Soviet Union.

Sorting all this out will test whether they've changed from a century ago when Will Rogers declared, "I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat."

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.