FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Colleen Fullbright was perched in a front-row seat in a basketball arena here as she waited to see the only politician in a long time who has truly inspired her.
The 62-year-old substitute teacher acknowledged deep disappointment with Bernie Sanders’s dismal showing against Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton in South Carolina on Saturday, wondering aloud about his campaign’s ability to connect with black voters. And she said she was worried that the media was now too eager to write off the senator from Vermont.
But then Fullbright took a look around at the 6,500 people who had packed the place where the Colorado State Rams play. “It’s events like this that keep up the hope,” she said. “I don’t see a future with any of the other candidates.”
And yet there may be no future with Sanders, either. Recent polls suggest that the senator is in a perilous position as he tries to emerge from Super Tuesday able to sustain a real challenge to Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Eleven states — Colorado among them — are holding primaries or caucuses, offering the largest trove of delegates on a single day this year. Sanders has vowed to soldier on regardless of how many of those he claims, and a campaign war chest built upon small-dollar contributions will give him ample resources to do so.
On Monday, the campaign announced it had raised an eye-popping $42 million in February alone, enough to sustain a scrappy campaign for months to come.
But Tuesday should go a long way toward determining what kind of contender Sanders will be going forward: whether he’s seen as a serious threat to Clinton or reverts to being a message candidate — influencing the conversation with his relentless focus on income inequality but with little hope of becoming the Democratic nominee.
“He can stay in the race as long as he wants to, but at a certain point he’s got to ask himself what he wants,” said Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. Without a surprisingly strong showing, “his path to the nomination becomes as a narrow as a tightrope. The question becomes whether he wants to continue to push a message and be there waiting in case the Clinton campaign somehow collapses.”
Sanders did not disappoint when he took the stage here Sunday to the pulsating sounds of a Bruce Springsteen anthem. The crowd erupted in deafening screams as the rumpled, white-haired septuagenarian pivoted in several directions and offered a broad wave and beaming smile.
“You are a large crowd and a raucous crowd,” he screamed into the microphone before launching into a stump speech that would keep the rapt attention of his supporters for close to an hour.
Sanders has targeted five of the 11 Super Tuesday contests, including his home state of Vermont, where he plans to hold an election night gathering. Whether that turns into a celebration or a wake will largely be determined by his showing — and there have been some troubling signs, including polls showing Clinton opening up a lead in Massachusetts, one of the places Sanders had been angling for a victory.
Polls have shown Clinton with commanding leads in several of the other six states, all of them in the South and most with sizable African American populations, offering Clinton the same potential advantage she had in South Carolina.
Despite considerable efforts at outreach, and endorsements by an eclectic group of black politicians and entertainers, Sanders was unable to make much headway with African Americans in Nevada or South Carolina. His audiences at campaign rallies remain disproportionately white, a problem his advisers acknowledge will need to be fixed if he is going to have a shot at the nomination.
Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a fellow Vermonter who knows Sanders well, made no predictions about where Sanders’s campaign is headed but said his motivation from the outset has been airing the issues.
Sanders, he added, has gradually let more and more of his personality show as his following has grown and his campaign met with its initial success in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Some of these politicians specialize in glad-handing and kissing babies,” Cohen said. “That’s not what he’s in this for.”
Sanders and his advisers insist that the calendar becomes more favorable to his campaign later, once most of the Southern states are behind them and several more delegate-rich targets arise, including Michigan and other states battered by trade and likely to be more open to Sanders’s economic message. How many people will still be paying attention remains an open question.
On Monday, Sanders told reporters that he plans to stay in the race until all 50 states have had a say. That was a point that his wife, Jane, echoed as Sanders’s charted jet traveled back to Vermont that evening.
“If you’ve gone to the rallies with us, you’ve seen the hope and the expectation, the fervor and the support for the ideas,” she told reporters traveling in the back of the plane. “Bernie’s not going to let those people down. Every state should be able to voice their support or what they believe in.”
Undeniably, Sanders has come a long way since the days when he and a couple of aides folded into a compact rental car and navigated their way around Iowa and New Hampshire, holding town hall meetings where the only accoutrement was a campaign placard taped to his lectern.
He now travels with a retinue of aides and Secret Services agents, hopscotching among Super Tuesday states in a chartered jet. His rallies still have a revival quality, and the politician at the center has grown into the role, playing off the energy of the crowd and sprinkling heavy policy talk with dry humor and well-timed one-liners.
While Sanders used to make a beeline to his car when he was done speaking, he now stays and works the rope line, shaking hands and posing for countless selfies.
There are frequent outbursts of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” at Sanders’s rallies, and he knows that simply asking, “Are you ready for a radical idea?” will generate feverish screams.
At an earlier event Sunday in Oklahoma City, Sanders claimed at the outset of the speech that his campaign has “huge momentum.”
Cries of “yuuuge!” reverberated around the arena, with his audience playfully mocking his exaggerated Brooklyn accent in a way that has been popularized by sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”
Minutes later, when Sanders turned his attention to his plans to expand child care, he continued the running joke, telling the crowd that he was talking about a “yuuuge” issue.
Sanders had been riding high after his near-tie with Clinton in Iowa and a big win in New Hampshire. But ever since his momentum started to stall with a five-point loss in Nevada, he has devoted a section of his speech to detailing his differences with the Democratic front-runner, often eliciting boos at the mention of her name or record.
He also jabs at her for the six-figure fees she has received for giving speeches to Wall Street firms and other corporate interests in the run-up to her presidential bid — and for her refusal to release the transcripts.
“If you’re going to give a speech for $225,000, it must be a hell of a good speech, and you’re going to want to share it with the American people,” he told a crowd of more than 3,700 in Milton, Mass., on Monday night.
The adoration of Sanders’s core followers is often evident even before he arrives.
As the audience waited for him to take the stage in Oklahoma City, live shots of the crowd were shown on an overhead scoreboard, with the camera pausing on homemade signs and prompting repeated screams of approval.
“FINALLY A REASON TO VOTE” read one. “I’m Yearnin’ for a Bernin’ ” proclaimed another.
Supporters interviewed in the arena expressed optimism that Sanders could prevail both in their states and in enough others to maintain a viable path to the nomination. But there was also a sense of resignation that it could be the beginning of the end.
“He’s started a fire, at least among the young community,” said Chelsea Lagace, 25, an administrative assistant. “With all the enthusiasm, I hope we can keep rolling with it.”
But if Sanders falls short, she said, “I’m still a Democrat, and I’ll always be a Democrat, and Hillary will still get my vote. But it won’t be the same.”
“He’s still got a chance,” said Jeremiah Curran, a 29-year-old waiter and aspiring musician who moved to nearby Edmond to save money.
Curran said many of Sanders’s proposals resonate, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and moving to a single-payer, universal health-care system.
“Being one of the wealthiest countries, and not taking care of our own, that bothers me,” he said when asked to explain Sanders’s appeal.
Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, he said, “I think he’s opening that doorway to the future.”
Sanders began his campaign in late April, determined to elevate the discussion of such issues as income and wealth inequality that he thought weren’t getting the attention they deserve in Congress or from what he refers to as the “corporate-owned media.”
In an interview, Sanders’s wife, Jane, said she initially tried to persuade him to find another way besides a White House bid to draw attention to the causes he was championing.
“I kept on saying, ‘Can’t you write a book, can’t you start an organization, can’t you do a speaking tour?’ And he kept on saying, ‘Yes, I can do all those things, and it’s not going to matter at all. It’s not going to change the conversation.’ ”