Bernie Sanders is greeted by his supporters at the airport in Burlington, Vt., when he returned home from California on Wednesday, June 8. (Photo by Robert Costa/The Washington Post)

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Bernie Sanders returned here Wednesday as a favorite son in the city he calls home and once served as mayor but facing an uncertain political future.

After stepping off his campaign’s chartered flight from Los Angeles, Sanders was greeted by a small crowd of cheering supporters just hours after the 74-year-old senator defiantly declared that he would remain in the Democratic presidential race.

Sanders raised his hands in thanks and embraced volunteers who had waited at dusk for hours to be here once Sanders touched down in Vermont. One man implored him, “Do not quit.”

“All right, go home. It’s cold,” Sanders joked.

But the welcoming scene — a democratic socialist coming back flanked by Secret Service agents and having won more than 20 primary contests — was both invigorating and valedictory for Sanders, whose campaign has been an emblem of the liberal activist politics for which Burlington is known.

While he has been able over the past year to infuse the values he has long championed into the national debate and lead a populist uprising, his rival Hillary Clinton claimed her party’s nomination following victories Tuesday in California and three other states.

That cold political reality leaves Sanders without a viable path to nomination and decisions in the coming days about how to move forward.

Yet even as party officials plead with him to endorse Clinton, Sanders is intent on considering a possible exit on his own terms. At times fiery and stubborn in his rally speech Tuesday night, he said he would carry on through next week’s primary in the District of Columbia.

Sanders’s campaign said he would remain in Burlington on Wednesday evening and then fly to Washington on Thursday morning for meetings with President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), among others. He will hold a rally in Washington on Thursday evening.

Sanders and Obama spoke by phone over the weekend and on Tuesday, the White House announced that the senator had requested a meeting.

That conversation and others planned for Thursday will revolve around how Sanders can assure that his campaign’s agenda has a central place in the Democratic Party’s general-election strategy.

As Sanders flew to Vermont on Wednesday afternoon with his family and staff, a campaign aide ventured to the back of the plane to speak with reporters.

The aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said the campaign is preparing to make a major push on shaping the party platform at the Democratic National Convention next month and listed a carbon tax, a $15 federal minimum wage, and tougher regulations on financial companies as examples of what the Sanders campaign wants to see adopted in Philadelphia.

When asked whether Sanders would be willing to be vetted as a possible vice-presidential candidate for Clinton, the aide flatly said it is “too premature” to answer the question.

An hour later, before ducking into a car in Burlington, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver spoke to reporters and said the candidate was "upbeat.”

“No one is the nominee. The nominee is elected at the convention,” Weaver said when asked whether Sanders will acknowledge Clinton as the Democratic standard-bearer.

When asked whether Sanders considers her to be the presumptive nominee, Weaver shook his head. “That’s a term of art that the media uses.”

“I think he's very proud of the race that he has run and rightly so, and the race he continues to run,” he added, noting that Sanders is focused this week on reaching out to superdelegates and campaigning in Washington.