In risky strategy, Sanders's rivals hold their fire against him

He won the most votes in Iowa. He leads every single New Hampshire poll. He’s starting to pull ahead nationally for the first time. And he’s lapping the field with his mammoth fundraising.

But Bernie Sanders is also the most polarizing Democrat in the race, a “democratic socialist” with a long history of controversial positions, a bogeyman to Wall Street and, although in seeming good health, the survivor of a heart attack as recently as October. Many Democrats consider him a risky choice; Republicans reportedly have been urging their followers in South Carolina to cross party lines to vote for him in that state’s primary, as the presumed weakest opponent to President Trump.

Yet on the eve of New Hampshire’s pivotal Tuesday primary, his rivals have mostly spared Sanders their attacks. Why?

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Bernie Sanders's 2020 presidential campaign
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Bernie Sanders's 2020 presidential campaign
Less than three weeks after suffering a heart attack, the Democratic presidential contender is beginning what he's calling a "vigorous" return to campaigning with a rally expected to draw thousands of supporters to New York City on Saturday afternoon.
Less than three weeks after suffering a heart attack, the Democratic presidential contender is beginning what he's calling a "vigorous" return to campaigning with a rally expected to draw thousands of supporters to New York City on Saturday afternoon.
A Bernie2020 campaign sign is help up in the crowd as Sanders co-chair Sen. Nina Turner, joined by local politicians and hospital workers protest the imminent closure of Hahnemann University Hospital at a rally outside the Center City facilities in Philadelphia, PA on July 11, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and former Vice President Joe Biden talk following a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., gesture to each other during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
PELLA, IA - JULY 04: An attendee hold a sign for U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during the 4th of July parade on July 4, 2019 in Pella, Iowa. The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses will take place on Monday, February 3, 2020. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
PELLA, IA - JULY 04: U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate v (I-VT) waves as he attends the 4th of July parade on July 4, 2019 in Pella, Iowa. The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses will take place on Monday, February 3, 2020. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
PELLA, IA - JULY 04: U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attends the 4th of July parade on July 4, 2019 in Pella, Iowa. The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses will take place on Monday, February 3, 2020. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JUNE 27: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to the media after the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders speaks to the press in the Spin Room after participating in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders looks on during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
HOMESTEAD, USA - JUNE 27: Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2020 presidential candidate speaks to the media outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children a detention facility for incarcerated youths that have been detained by Homeland Security in Homestead, Florida, United States on June 27, 2019. (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui T./Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A supporter of Democratic presidential candidate and US Senator, Bernie Sanders, holds up a sign during a rally inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically black college in Rock Hill, SC on June, 23 2019. - Many of the Democratic candidates running for president were in South Carolina over the weekend to make appearances at the Democratic Party Convention and win the hearts of black voters. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Danny Glover (L), Hollywood actor and supporter of Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, listens as Sanders gives a speech inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically black college in Rock Hill, SC on June, 23 2019. Glover has been on the campaign trail opening for the Senator during his swing through South Carolina. - Many of the Democratic candidates running for president were in South Carolina over the weekend to make appearances at the Democratic Party Convention and win the hearts of black voters. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic Senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, greets supporters after a speech at a packed rally inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically black college, before a rally in Rock Hill, SC on June, 23 2019. - Many of the Democratic candidates running for president were in South Carolina over the weekend to make appearances at the Democratic Party Convention and win the hearts of black voters. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic Senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, addresses the crowd at a packed rally inside the gymnasium at Clinton College, a historically black college, before a rally in Rock Hill, SC on June, 22 2019. - Many of the Democratic candidates running for president were in South Carolina over the weekend to make appearances at the Democratic Party Convention and win the hearts of black voters. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - 2019/05/31: U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, speaks at a campaign rally in Pasadena, California. The 2020 presidential hopeful spoke to supporters at the Pasadena Convention Center. This weekend Sanders will also attend the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - 2019/05/31: Supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are seen holding letters that spell Bernie during a campaign rally in Pasadena, California. The 2020 presidential hopeful spoke to supporters at the Pasadena Convention Center. This weekend Sanders will also attend the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - MAY 31: Sen. Bernie Sanders appears at a campaign rally at the Pasadena Convention Center on May 31, 2019 in Pasadena, California. Sanders and three other candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination - Sen. Kamala Harris, Julian Castro and Gov. Jay Inslee - will field questions at the Immigrant Unity and Freedom Presidential Forum of 2019 nearby, following the rally. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - 2019/05/31: Supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders hold Bernie placards during a campaign rally in Pasadena, California. The 2020 presidential hopeful spoke to supporters at the Pasadena Convention Center. This weekend Sanders will also attend the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MONTPELIER, VT - MAY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in the capital of his home state of Vermont on May 25, 2019 in Montpelier, Vermont. This was the first Vermont rally of Sanders' 2020 campaign. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
SCHENLEY PLAZA, PITTSBURGH, PA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/14: People holding Bernie signs during a Bernie Sanders rally campaign ahead of United States Presidential election. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh, PA on the campaign trail for the bid in the 2020 election. (Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SCHENLEY PLAZA, PITTSBURGH, PA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/14: Bernie Sanders speaks to the crowd during his rally campaign ahead of United States Presidential election. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh, PA on the campaign trail for the bid in the 2020 election. (Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SCHENLEY PLAZA, PITTSBURGH, PA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/14: Bernie Sanders speaks to the crowd during his rally campaign ahead of United States Presidential election. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh, PA on the campaign trail for the bid in the 2020 election. (Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SCHENLEY PLAZA, PITTSBURGH, PA, UNITED STATES - 2019/04/14: Bernie Sanders speaks to the crowd during his rally campaign ahead of United States Presidential election. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh, PA on the campaign trail for the bid in the 2020 election. (Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 5: Flanked by Rev. Al Sharpton (L) and Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson (R) look on as Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at the National Action Network's annual convention, April 5, 2019 in New York City. A dozen 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are speaking at the organization's convention this week. Founded by Rev. Al Sharpton in 1991, the National Action Network is one of the most influential African American organizations dedicated to civil rights in America. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 05: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I -VT) attends the National Action Network's annual convention on April 5, 2019 in New York City. A dozen 2020 Democratic presidential candidates will speak at the organization's convention this week. Founded by Rev. Al Sharpton in 1991, the National Action Network is one of the most influential African American organizations dedicated to civil rights in America. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Supporters of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) listen during a campaign rally at Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Thousands are expected to attend the rally as Sanders continues his California swing in preparation for the early 2020 primaries (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Volunteer Ena Silva wears a hat she decorated during a campaign rally for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Thousands are expected to attend the rally as Sanders continues his California swing in preparation for the early 2020 primaries (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Souvenir t-shirts are seen outside a campaign rally for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Thousands are expected to attend the rally as Sanders continues his California swing in preparation for the early 2020 primaries (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Judy Canham holds a doll of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during a campaign rally at Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Thousands are expected to attend the rally as Sanders continues his California swing in preparation for the early 2020 primaries (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 24: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a campaign rally at the Great Meadow Park in Fort Mason on March 24, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Sanders, who is so far the top Democratic candidate in the race, is making the rounds in California which is considered a crucial 'first five' primary state by the Sanders campaign. California will hold on early primary on March 3, 2020. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 20: Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gives a speech during a single-day strike of University of California research and technical workers on the UCLA Westwood campus March 20, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Union leaders and students from UCLA also participated in the activities. Similar demonstrations were held at UC medical facilities across the state. Sen. Sanders formally announced in February that he is running for President in the 2020 campaign. (Photo bu Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - MARCH 14: 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addresses the crowd at the Royal Family Life Center on March 14, 2019 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Sanders received 26 percent of the South Carolina Democratic vote in the 2020 race, eventually losing the nomination to Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - MARCH 14: 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets the crowd at the Royal family Life Center on March 14, 2019 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Sanders received 26 percent of the South Carolina Democratic vote in the 2020 race, eventually losing the nomination to Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
CONCORD, NH - MARCH 10: Supporters of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during a campaign event on March 10, 2019 in Concord, New Hampshire. Sanders who is so far the top Democratic candidate in the race is making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 09: 2020 Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets potential supporters at a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 9, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Sanders who is so far the top Democratic candidate in the race is making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)
Senator Bernie Sanders launched his 2020 presidential campaign at his alma mater, Brooklyn College, in his hometown Brooklyn, New York, US, on 2 March 2019. (Photo by Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders, Independent US Senator from Vermont speaks on stage as he kicks-off his campaign for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections on a Democratic ticket at a rally at Brooklyn College, in Brooklyn, NY on March 2, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders, Independent US Senator from Vermont speaks on stage as he kicks-off his campaign for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections on a Democratic ticket at a rally at Brooklyn College, in Brooklyn, NY on March 2, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 02: Bernie Sanders pins are on display during his first presidential campaign rally at Brooklyn College on March 02, 2019 in the Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)
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It’s the most pressing question among Democrats — especially mainstream Democrats who aren’t down with Sanders’s “political revolution” just yet. They suspect (and polls suggest they’re right) that the senator from neighboring Vermont is on the cusp of victory there. They see his strength in Nevada and California, where surveys already show him in first. And they can’t fathom why his rivals aren’t harping on his Soviet honeymoon or his wife’s messy college presidency.

The answer? The rest of the candidates are too busy trying to stop one another.

The final weekend before New Hampshire was notable for two things: a near-total lack of new broadsides against Bernie, the presumptive frontrunner, and escalating aggressiveness across the rest of the field.

As the delegate winner in Iowa — and the only candidate who has climbed quickly enough in the post-Iowa New Hampshire polls to challenge Sanders’s lead — Pete Buttigieg took the most incoming fire. At Friday’s debate, both Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer attacked Buttigieg at every turn, with Klobuchar likening him to the “newcomer in the White House” and Steyer questioning the demographic breadth of his support. (Buttigieg has struggled to garner any measurable backing among black Democrats.)

Then, on Saturday, Joe Biden launched a cutting new digital ad contrasting Buttigieg’s record as mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city with Biden’s weightier experience as vice president of the United States. “When park-goers called on Pete Buttigieg,” the narrator says sarcastically, “he installed decorative lights under bridges, giving citizens of South Bend colorfully illuminated rivers.”

Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign released its own attack on Buttigieg over his big-ticket fundraising events, and Elizabeth Warren implicitly dismissed him as a candidate who has been “shaped by a bunch of consultants.”

Smelling blood after his humiliating fourth-place finish in Iowa and a round of new polls showing him plummeting to fourth in New Hampshire, Biden’s rivals also took aim at him. “Neither is he,” Buttigieg quipped Sunday when asked to respond to Biden’s earlier remark to reporters that “this guy,” Buttigieg, “is not a Barack Obama.” Steyer continued his efforts toerode Biden’s support among black voters in his firewall state of South Carolina, where over the past seven months the California billionaire has spent $14 million on TV and radio ads and more than $100,000 on ads in black-owned newspapers, while hiring 93 staffers and assembling the largest operation of any campaign — and where he has been rewarded with double-digit poll numbers as a result.

All of which underscored what has become the defining dynamic of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. In poll after poll, roughly one-quarter of primary voters say they would prefer to nominate Sanders over anyone else. The other three-quarters continue to say they would prefer someone else. The problem for those potential someone elses is that they are still dividing up that 75 percent 10 ways, making it very difficult for any one of them to catch up to Sanders. The longer this continues, the fewer delegates will remain for them to catch up with.  

So the strategy of Bernie’s rivals has its own logic. His supporters are the most committed of all; attack him and they simply double down. The way for “someone else” to win the nomination, then, isn’t by peeling off Sanders loyalists. It’s by eliminating the rest of the competition and getting a chance to face off against him one-on-one.

But New Hampshire could make it painfully clear why this “last candidate standing” strategy may never stop Sanders. According to the latest FiveThirtyEight polling average, Sanders leads the pack with 26.1 percent — a gain of 2 percentage points since Iowa. Buttigieg is next at 20.8 percent, having shot up nearly 8 points since the caucuses. At 12.5 percent, Biden has fallen more than 4 points during the past week, and he now narrowly trails Warren, who is averaging 12.7 percent. Meanwhile, Klobuchar is rapidly gaining ground after an impressive debate performance Friday; bothsurveys conducted after that event show the Minnesota senator surging into third place with 14 percent of the vote.  

Say those results hold. Biden would finish fifth. Three non-Bernie candidates — Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren — would finish ahead of him. Yet Biden, who’s banking on black voters in South Carolina to bail him out on Feb. 29, has already insisted he’s staying in the race, and he’s likely to continue campaigning at least through Super Tuesday on March 3 because he is polling well in most of the large states that vote that day (Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and so on). But if both Klobuchar and Warren beat Biden, they’re not likely to drop out, either.

Neither is Buttigieg. After top finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’d probably have the best claim to the anti-Bernie mantle. But Democrats in the next two states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina, are disproportionately minorities, with whom Buttigieg barely registers; right now he’s averaging 7.6 percent in the former (good for fourth place) and 5.6 percent in the latter (good for sixth place). No one is going to clear the field for Mayor Pete — including Steyer, who’s been spending big and picking up steam in South Carolina and Nevada — as long as there’s a decent chance he might crash and burn later this month.

To be sure, a few lesser candidates — Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, Deval Patrick — might drop out after New Hampshire. Klobuchar’s polling bump could dissipate; she could finish fifth, behind Biden, and exit as well. Their supporters might disperse — some to Sanders, some to his rivals. But Democrats will still face the same collective-action problem that confounded Republicans in 2016: a frontrunner who doesn’t command majority support yet still leads the pack because too many of his would-be adversaries have good reasons to keep running.

And then there’s Mike Bloomberg, who’s patiently awaiting the field on Super Tuesday with rising poll numbers and $60 billion in the bank ­— a factor that will further splinter the anti-Bernie vote.  

In short, unless a surprising set of results in New Hampshire suddenly motivates several top-tier Democrats to end their campaigns, it’s going to be a while before anyone actually gets around to taking on Sanders.

By then, it might be too late. 

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