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Pa. Democrats are waiting for answers as Sanders surges, Biden struggles, and Bloomberg looms

For Pennsylvania Democrats watching the 2020 presidential primary from afar, the view looks hazy at best.

Former Vice President Joe Biden (left), former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg (center), and Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt. (right).
Former Vice President Joe Biden (left), former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg (center), and Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt. (right).Read moreMary Altaffer / AP; Carlos Osorio / AP; Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP (custom credit)

For Pennsylvania Democrats watching the 2020 presidential primary from afar, the view looks hazy at best.

Much of the state’s Democratic establishment spent months lining up behind Scranton-born Joe Biden as the best bet to win back Pennsylvania — and the White House — only to see him badly stumble in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Now, with Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary just 10 weeks away, many are confronting the same reality that divides the party nationally: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is building significant momentum, and no centrist has emerged as a clear-cut alternative to a figure who worries many in the party.

Some are holding firm with the former vice president, hoping he can still salvage his candidacy in South Carolina, a critical firewall for his campaign. Others are deeply worried about Biden’s viability, but unsure if other moderate options such as Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have demonstrated enough appeal among people of color.

And the free-spending billionaire Michael Bloomberg is increasingly seen as an attractive unity option for moderates, as he continues to drop millions of dollars advertising on television airwaves that he has almost entirely to himself.

Like so much of the party establishment nationally, all they can do for now is watch and wait, unwilling or unable to consolidate behind anyone. The candidates all talk up their abilities to beat President Donald Trump in places like Pennsylvania. But aside from Bloomberg, who is skipping the early states entirely, they have focused their attention on first surviving contests elsewhere.

“Like everybody else, you’re just watching these results come in,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Biden backer. “It’s still early in the process and people are kicking the tires, so to speak. And by the time we get to vote ... a lot of things will shake out.”

This article is based on interviews Wednesday with 15 elected officials and party operatives about the state of the race after the first two contests.

So far, Sanders is the only candidate who has shown an ability to generate excitement and appeal to a large segment of multiracial voters. And his strong showings so far have, for now at least, made him the candidate to beat.

His supporters argue he can generate new grassroots enthusiasm among young people, as well as working-class voters who helped Trump win Pennsylvania in 2016. As evidence, Sanders’ campaign pointed to an estimated 1,200 events in Pennsylvania hosted by volunteers, and campaign donations from almost 55,000 Pennsylvanians as of Feb. 5 — totaling almost $3.65 million.

“What I hear from establishment Democrats does not reflect at all what I hear when I’m canvassing and talking to voters, union members," said Jonah Gardner, canvassing director for the Philadelphia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which backs Sanders. “The actual people who are going to cast a vote are all very open to Sanders.”

Sanders terrifies much of the party establishment, which worries that a candidate who identifies as a democratic socialist will be toxic among moderate voters, and could cost the party hard-won seats in the U.S. House.

Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphian who backs Biden, said his Democratic colleagues who flipped Republican districts are worried about their reelection prospects if Sanders is the nominee.

“Five or six have to varying degrees expressed either concern or real concern about running with Sanders at the top of the ticket," Boyle said. "I think Bernie has run a damn good campaign and that deserves to be recognized. At the same time, though, I still believe this is a wide-open race.”

Polling from earlier this month showed Biden with a solid lead among Pennsylvania Democrats, but losing some steam as Sanders and Bloomberg rise — and that was before Biden’s poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

As long as the moderate vote remains split among several candidates, Sanders can steadily earn delegates toward the nomination — even with only 20% to 30% of the vote in each state.

“It’s almost like they don’t believe it yet,” Neil Makhija, a Center City attorney active in Democratic politics who remains unaligned in the race, said of the party’s reaction to Sanders’ rise. “They’re almost not taking him seriously in the way that they should.”

For Biden, after months of touting his electability — often using Pennsylvania to illustrate the point — his pitch has been undermined. His allies note that he’s positioned to do better in South Carolina, where more than half of the Democratic primary electorate is African American. But that vote is two weeks away. And in between, Sanders appears poised for another strong showing in Nevada, which has a large Latino population.

“I do think there’s something of a deflated feeling on staff," said a Pennsylvania Democrat close to the Biden campaign. "I don’t feel like people ever expected him to win Iowa or New Hampshire, but I just don’t think people thought the press narrative would be so aggressive. The obituaries of the campaign are a little jarring, and can affect fund-raising.”

Alan Kessler, a bundler for Biden, said a revival in South Carolina would be key. “Yeah, it’s disappointing," said Kessler, a Center City lawyer. "There’s no other way to frame it, but the narrative has always been about South Carolina, so now we’re on to South Carolina.”

As Biden continues to stumble, Klobuchar and Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., increasingly appear to be solid contenders for the moderate mantle. Each has emphasized Midwestern roots and pragmatic messages aimed at winning over moderates and Republicans.

Former Rep. Patrick Murphy, a prominent Buttigieg supporter, said he’s heard from county leaders in Pennsylvania who are interested in the former mayor, including several committed to other candidates.

“There’s a lot of folks coming from Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren’s teams onto Pete," said Murphy, of Bucks County. "And whether that’s operatives, or fund-raisers, there’s a groundswell of support bubbling up here in Pennsylvania.”

But Buttigieg and Klobuchar have thus far leaned heavily on white voters, which won’t be sufficient in the long run — especially in the bevy of diverse Super Tuesday states that vote on March 3.

Local Warren supporters, meanwhile, were concerned about her clear fall from the top tier in the first two contests — though not yet ready to abandon ship. “We all remain committed to her,” said Adam Bonin, a Center City attorney.

One candidate intriguing to many Democrats wondering what happens if Biden doesn’t last is Bloomberg, who has showered millions of dollars of spending on Pennsylvania television and on staffing.

“I hear a lot of people talking about him. I hear a lot of people that are interested in him,” said Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County executive, who argued that only Biden, Klobuchar, or Bloomberg can beat Trump in Western Pennsylvania.

If the Democratic tangle continues, Bloomberg could emerge as a centrist alternative to Sanders — though he has not yet been subjected to sustained campaign combat.

“Democrats clearly have not ... settled on a particular candidate so far,” said former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who is national political chair of Bloomberg’s campaign. “It provides great opening and opportunity for growth for Mayor Bloomberg.”

In a sign of how seriously rivals are taking him, the Biden campaign singled out Bloomberg for criticism over comments unearthed this week that he made about stop-and-frisk police tactics when he was mayor of New York.

Others remain wary of taking sides.

Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), who dropped out of the race last month, said Wednesday that he’s focused on his Senate reelection campaign and not ready to endorse.

And Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who backed Sanders in 2016, said he wouldn’t endorse anyone this time around. He said he’s staying neutral because it will be critical to unite the party’s disparate factions once the fight is over.

“It’s 100% about uniting Democrats behind our eventual nominee against Trump," Fetterman said. "Because it’s absolutely going to be all hands on deck.”

Staff writers Sean Collins Walsh and William Bender contributed to this article.