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Sanders Presidential Campaign Could Hinge On Michigan's Primary


Just a few weeks ago, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. That changed very quickly after Joe Biden won 10 states on Super Tuesday. And now the future of Sanders' campaign could hinge on one state.


BERNIE SANDERS: So Tuesday is a very, very important day, and Michigan is the most important state coming up on Tuesday.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Detrow reports from Detroit, where Democratic voters will make their decision today.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Michigan's recent political history looms large over today's primary. It's the site of Sanders' biggest upset victory in his 2016 primary against Hillary Clinton. It's also, of course, a big part of President Trump's upset victory a few months later. And ever since, Sanders has been coming back.


SANDERS: Tens and tens of thousands of Americans are saying loudly and clearly, Republicans, you are not going to destroy the Affordable Care Act.

DETROW: That was a rally Sanders led in Macomb County just a few days before Trump was inaugurated. Since then, Sanders has campaigned for other candidates here and for himself.


BILL NEIDHARDT: It has a significance, historically, for us. You know, Bernie had a huge comeback here in 2016. But it also represents a lot of what this election is about.

DETROW: Bill Neidhardt is a spokesman for the Sanders campaign. What this election is about has mostly been electability - everyone arguing that they're the best ones to take on Trump here. But for the Sanders campaign, it's also about issues. Heading into the Michigan primary, Sanders and his campaign have been ramping up their attacks on Joe Biden's voting record in the Senate, particularly his support for trade deals like NAFTA and for the 2003 Iraq War.


DONALD RIEGLE: In the last election, four years ago, we had a candidate on both those things that voted the same way.

DETROW: That's former Michigan Senator Don Riegle rallying with Sanders in Grand Rapids.


RIEGLE: We lost that election to Donald Trump. I don't want to lose this election to Donald Trump.

DETROW: But poll after poll in recent days shows Michigan voters may not be too receptive to this argument. It's Biden, not Sanders, with the big lead. Some, like Patricia Scott (ph), are warming to Biden's sole focus on defeating Trump.

PATRICIA SCOTT: Oh, I just think Joe represents stability. I think he will be a very uniting force across the United States, as well as the world because we all need to be united.

DETROW: Others are like Julian Guerra (ph). They're worried that Sanders' democratic socialism is just too far left for other voters.

JULIAN GUERRA: I mean, you know, so I'm also an idealist guy, so I guess Bernie would be my guy. But, you know, people are not going to vote for him. He just - what he wants to do - everything is great, and we need it, right? But people are not going to stretch themselves, like, that far out.

DETROW: A loss in Michigan would be a big blow for Sanders, both for its delegates and for its political symbolism. Biden is trying to put the race away. He held another election eve rally with high-profile new backers. This week, it's Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.


KAMALA HARRIS: We will elect Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.


DETROW: In the face of a possible loss in such an important state, the Sanders campaign has been scrambling. They canceled announced rallies in three other states in order to spend more time in Michigan this week. At a big rally in Ann Arbor, Sanders spoke directly to those doubts that his agenda of national health care, free public college and everything else is just too unrealistic.


SANDERS: We are capable of making sweeping change if we have the courage to do it.


DETROW: Of course, Sanders argues the power for this sweeping change comes from the voters showing up and demanding it. If his supporters don't do that today in a state that played such an important role in Sanders' rise, the 2020 version of his political revolution may be in danger of coming to an end.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT HURST'S "DETROIT RED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.