US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announces that he will be continuing his campaign for US president at least through his March 15 debate with former vice-president Joe Biden, in Burlington, Vermont, the US, March 11 2020. Picture: REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON
US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announces that he will be continuing his campaign for US president at least through his March 15 debate with former vice-president Joe Biden, in Burlington, Vermont, the US, March 11 2020. Picture: REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON

Burlington — Bernie Sanders on Wednesday defied pressure to drop out of the Democratic primary contest for the sake of party unity, saying he remained in the fight against centrist frontrunner Joe Biden.

But in a brief, passionate speech, Sanders made clear that his main priority was to see the defeat of "dangerous" President Donald Trump.

And he acknowledged that many Democrats see him as less electable than Biden — perhaps preparing the ground for his exit.

Sanders had been holed up in his home state of Vermont overnight after suffering heavy defeats in primaries across the country Tuesday.

Speculation had been growing that he might respond to pleas from Democratic activists to step aside, giving Biden — his only rival — a chance to focus on campaigning against Trump.

But the fiery leftist broke his silence to say he was preparing for his first one-on-one televised debate on Sunday “with my friend Joe Biden”.

While he remained defiant, Sanders did make a number of unusual statements, accepting both his losses during the primary race and perceptions that he would fare less well against Trump.

“I cannot tell you how many people our campaign has spoken to who say they agree with us but will vote for Joe because they believe he's the best to beat Donald Trump,” he said. “Needless to say, I strongly disagree with that assertion, but that’s what millions of Democrats and independents say. 

Sanders then listed questions he wanted Biden to answer on how to deal with far-reaching inequality and other structural issues that he believes can only be addressed by radical economic change or “revolution”.

“Joe, what are you going to do?” he asked in what sounded less like an attack on Biden than an appeal for him to reach out to the party’s left wing.

Biden unstoppable?

Biden’s trajectory to a November showdown with Trump began looking unstoppable after he scooped a series of primary wins on Tuesday, including in the industrial powerhouse of Michigan — a state that will be crucial in the general election.

Biden racked up wins in Mississippi, Missouri, Idaho and Michigan, building on his come-from-behind triumph a week earlier on Super Tuesday.

He now has about 860 delegate votes to Sanders' 710, and looks set to reach the needed 1,991 delegates.

Addressing supporters in Philadelphia as his victory took shape, 77-year-old centrist Biden reached out to Sanders, thanking the leftist Vermont senator and his supporters for their “tireless energy and their passion”.

The former vice-president under Barack Obama struck a unifying tone as he affirmed on national television that he and Sanders “share a common goal and together we will defeat Donald Trump”.

Another of the six states on offer, North Dakota, was called for Sanders early Wednesday. He also led the count by about 2,100 votes in Washington state, the other major prize of Tuesday's primaries, with around 70% of the vote counted.

Uniting the ticket

With Biden's path to the Democratic nomination increasingly locked in, the overwhelming question is whether Sanders will swallow his pride and get his supporters behind the candidate — or risk party civil war.

Adding to nerves in a country on edge after three tumultuous years under Trump, fears of the coronavirus pandemic prompted both campaigns to cancel rallies planned in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Sunday debate will also be without a live audience as a result of the health scare.

AFP

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