The Sanders rally in the late afternoon in Springfield was a far more energetic affair, with thousands lining up outside to enter the field house of a sports center, and some parking as far as a mile away. Inside, a reggae band warmed up the crowd and cheering supporters holding “Bernie” signs greeted people as they walked in.
Virginia is one of 14 states holding nominating contests on Super Tuesday, and is the fourth-largest behind California, Texas and North Carolina.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) campaigned in Falls Church on Friday and in Richmond on Saturday.
Recent polls show former vice president Joe Biden leading the pack in Virginia, with Bloomberg and Sanders (I-Vt.) within striking distance. Biden is scheduled to campaign in Norfolk on Sunday, the day after the South Carolina primary.
Biden on Friday picked up the endorsement of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced Saturday evening he would endorse Biden, shortly after the candidate was projected to handily win the South Carolina primary.
Bloomberg supporters munching on complementary fruit skewers, croissants and granola bars at the hotel rally largely had nice things to say about Biden. But they said they have lost confidence in the former vice president to lead the party to victory.
“We would be Biden fans if we thought he was close to getting the nomination, but his time has passed, and he doesn’t have his soul in it,” said Ken Daigler, a 70-year-old District resident who came to the rally with his wife. “He’s just not campaigning with the vigor he needs.”
Other voters, including John Estrella, a 49-year-old human rights lawyer from Falls Church, have been impressed by the strength of the Bloomberg campaign apparatus, especially after Biden’s disappointing finishes in the first three nominating contests.
“We’re single-issue voters, and that’s to get rid of Donald Trump,” said Estrella, who came to the rally with his wife and two young boys in tow. “Bloomberg’s machine is tight. It’s one of the best machines I’ve seen in more than 30 years of closely following politics.”
Since making a late entry into the race in November, Bloomberg has spent more than $400 million of his personal fortune on advertising, on hiring organizers and operatives across the country, and on developing a network of endorsers that includes scores of mayors and House members in vulnerable districts.
He skipped the early state contests and is counting on a strong showing on Super Tuesday to set himself up as the moderate alternative to Sanders. The primary voting Tuesday will be especially important for Bloomberg after a poor showing in his debut on the debate stage, when rivals tore into his past comments about women and the effects on people of color of the stop-and-frisk policy used by New York police.
“I’ve never worked in Washington. I don’t make pie-in-the-sky promises. And as you’ve seen in the debates, I’m not someone who just yells slogans even when they’re not true,” Bloomberg said Saturday morning. “We need a leader who is ready to be commander in chief, not chief college debater in chief.”
In the afternoon at the Sanders event, Khalid Thahir, an 18-year-old high school senior, said Sanders’s focus on higher education drew him to the senator. Thahir is planning to enroll in a two-year community college before transferring to a four-year university, in part because he is worried about cost. That’s a change from a generation ago, when his father was able to attend the University of Southern California without significant debt preventing him from starting a business.
“It’s a scary thing going out to the real world, and it wasn’t as exciting as it was in my father’s generation,” Thahir said.
Yasmine Benderson, a 19-year-old college student from Rockville, Md., said she understood some older Democrats’ reflexive response to dismiss free college.
“You have to remember they are coming from an age where they could go to college for a few hundred bucks,” said Benderson, who attended the rally with her friend from high school. “I have friends who are in second year of college and already $40,000 in debt.”
“Hi!” her friend Meron Million, a nursing student, added with a raised hand.
They also said Democrats should stop their hand-wringing over the term “socialism.”
“Don’t you pay taxes, don’t you get health insurance, don’t you get Social Security checks?” Benderson said. “You are already living in a society that implements socialist ideas. What are you afraid of?”
Sanders told cheering supporters they should take pride in the anxiety his recent primary wins provoked in the “corporate establishment and political establishment.” He rejected criticism that he is unelectable.
“The only way we beat Trump is when we have the largest voter turnout in the history of this country, and you can’t do that with the same-old, same-old boring types of politics,” Sanders said. “The only way you beat Trump is with a campaign of energy and excitement, and a campaign that brings working-class people into the political process.”
Virginia has been turning blue since Trump took office, with Democrats holding the governor’s mansion, unseating three incumbent Republican members of Congress and flipping the state legislature in last year’s election. Bloomberg and his organizations have been among the biggest donors to Virginia Democrats.
But some moderate Democrats fear those gains, largely fueled by voters in wealthy suburbs, could be washed away with a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist — Sanders — at the top of the ticket.
Count Janet Riley of Reston among the concerned. She voted for Trump in 2016 because she loathed Hillary Clinton.
“I hate it to say it, but if Bloomberg doesn’t get it, I’ll go back to Trump. And I don’t want to go to Trump,” said Riley, who is 58 and has worked in the intelligence industry. “You have to have somebody who understands the markets and understands how to fight for what the little guy needs.”
She was the rare Bloomberg supporter Saturday who ruled out voting for Sanders. Most interviewed said they would swallow their discomfort with Sanders to support the Democratic nominee.
“I don’t like how he wants free for everything, for everybody,” said Metty Surya, a 70-year-old Gainesville resident. “I don’t think all kids are college material, and if it’s free, you are partying for free.”
“I don’t agree with Medicare-for-all if you already have health insurance through your company,” her husband, Harry, interjected. “Mike has a company, and it offers very good insurance. Why should they give that up?”
Misgivings aside, they said Sanders was preferable to Trump. “We really have no choice, do we?” Metty Surya said.
Virginia Del. Lee J. Carter, who supports Sanders, said fear of the socialism label in suburban America is overblown. He said this as a self-described socialist who unseated a Republican in 2017 and easily won reelection in his Washington exurban district.
“There are millions of people throughout this country in urban areas, rural areas and suburbs that don’t feel like they have a voice in our politics,” said Carter (D-Manassas), who was targeted with a red mailer comparing him to Joseph Stalin during his first campaign. “At a certain point, you just have to laugh off the red-baiting and realize it’s completely disconnected from reality and this isn’t the 1980s anymore.”