A major focus of the effort is securing endorsements from prominent Democratic figures before Tuesday, when 14 states cast their primary votes. Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe has told associates he may endorse Biden on Sunday if Biden can pull off a strong first-place finish Saturday, according to a person familiar with McAuliffe’s thinking.
McAuliffe would join Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and former defense secretary and California congressman Leon Panetta. Both announced their support of Biden on Friday, hoping to give him a boost since Virginia and California both hold primaries March 3, also called Super Tuesday.
Their endorsements came shortly after that of Rep. James E. Clyburn, the most powerful Democrat in South Carolina, who announced Wednesday he was backing Biden. A person familiar with the Biden campaign’s thinking said officials expect to see a stream of endorsements if Biden performs well in South Carolina.
The campaign’s hope is to create the clear sense for voters that Biden is the consensus alternative among party leaders to Sanders (I-Vt.), a democratic socialist who some party leaders believe would have a narrower electoral college path against President Trump, potentially putting the Democratic House majority at risk and making it harder to recapture the Senate.
“We’re at an inflection point in this race and, as Joe Biden has said, he’s not a socialist or a plutocrat — he’s a Democrat,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman. “The vice president’s in very good company in that respect, and the stakes of beating Donald Trump in crucial battleground states are drawing them off the sidelines.”
A second Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the campaign hopes the South Carolina result will mark a clear pivot in the race.
“We anticipate and hope to see momentum coming out of South Carolina, not just because we win, which we hope we will, but because we’ve put a damper on Bernie’s momentum,” that person said. “No other candidate has shown an ability to put a stop on his momentum.”
There is little evidence that voters take their cues from the preferences of party elders. Rather, the Biden campaign’s goal is to generate a sense of momentum and end a stretch of the campaign that has seen Sanders take a clear lead in the nomination fight, winning or coming close in the first three contests, while the party’s centrists have been unable to rally around a single alternative.
Even if Biden prevails in South Carolina, however, he probably would struggle to catch up to Sanders. The senator from Vermont is polling strongly in many Super Tuesday states, including the big prize of California, forcing any would-be competitor to play catch-up.
At a recent retreat for Senate Democrats in Baltimore, one participant described the mood as “like a funeral” because of concerns that Sanders is headed to the nomination. That person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions, said the broad expectation was that Biden would try to cast himself as the only person who could stop Trump’s reelection if he wins big on Saturday.
The other Democratic candidates are also preparing strategies to frame the South Carolina results, given the stakes the following Tuesday, when 34 percent of the party’s convention delegates will be awarded.
Sanders’s campaign released a memo Friday describing him as “by far — the candidate who is best positioned to defeat Donald Trump in the general election.” The memo appeared aimed at making the case that even if Sanders does not win Saturday, he remains the Democrats’ best choice.
Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose steady rise in public polls has stalled since a disappointing debate performance in Nevada, said in an interview with MSNBC that he is committed to staying in the race “as long as I have a chance.”
“Yeah, I’m running a race, and I’m behind with one lap to go. What, am I going to quit? No, you run harder,” Bloomberg said.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have been boosted by significant recent television advertising investments on their behalf by supportive super PACs, which can take unlimited donations but do not coordinate directly with the campaigns. A separate group backing Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is spending money in key states such as Colorado.
The Biden campaign has bought $2.2 million in broadcast and digital advertising across the Super Tuesday states, according to the campaign’s data. The tracking firm Advertising Analytics reports that overall, Democrats have spent $247 million in advertising in the Super Tuesday states, driven by a massive investment by Bloomberg.
After leading national polls for a year, Biden notched deeply disappointing performances in the first two contests, finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire.
But after the Clyburn endorsement and a second-place finish in Nevada, Biden is now favored to win South Carolina, according to recent polls, although the size of his expected victory remains uncertain. His margin of victory will be a factor in McAuliffe’s decision, said the person familiar with his thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
A Biden campaign spokesman declined to comment on McAuliffe, while a McAuliffe spokesman said the former governor “has not made a decision on an endorsement.”
McAuliffe is an influential figure among Democratic leaders, and in some ways, he embodies the party establishment. McAuliffe chaired the Democratic National Committee and has close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, holding top positions with their presidential campaigns. He also contemplated a presidential run himself this year.
He has been neutral in the race so far, although he held a fundraiser in November for Biden at his home in McLean. About 115 guests stood around McAuliffe’s pool as the former governor described how Biden had helped Virginia as vice president, securing grants for the state and fighting to clean the Shenandoah River.
“We’ve got to get America back to where people get along, where we have alliances around the world and everybody loves the United States of America,” McAuliffe said, adding that Trump’s “insanity” had led the country “off the rails.”
McAuliffe’s wife, Dorothy, is backing Biden and is kicking off a get-out-the-vote event Saturday in Alexandria. At the November fundraiser she called Biden “a great man,” a “great public servant” and the Democrat who has “the best chance of beating Donald Trump.”
Biden is scheduled to attend a rally at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk on Sunday evening, which could provide a platform for a McAuliffe announcement.