2020 Watch: Why are there 8 candidates still in the race?

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Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he departs after attending services, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:

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Days to South Carolina primary: 5

Days to Super Tuesday: 8

Days to general election: 253

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THE NARRATIVE

Bernie Sanders has become the clear front-runner in the Democrats’ presidential nomination fight. And his Democratic critics are only now beginning to realize they’re running out of time to stop him. Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, among others, dramatically intensified their attacks against the Vermont senator over the weekend. But the cluster of candidates splitting up the anti-Sanders vote is not shrinking. Biden is as committed as ever ahead of South Carolina’s primary this Saturday, betting that his first victory could slingshot him to the front of the moderate muddle. And Mike Bloomberg, who gets a chance to redeem himself in Tuesday’s debate, has 400 million reasons not to get out before Super Tuesday. With eight candidates still in the race, Sanders’ path to the nomination is growing by the day.

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THE BIG QUESTIONS

Why are there eight candidates still in the race?

Sanders’ Democratic critics are getting louder. But math is on Sanders’ side. The longer a large number of candidates stay in the race, the more likely Sanders becomes the nominee. None of Sanders’ seven rivals is showing any signs of going away, even though five of the seven candidates have not finished better than third place through three contests. If that continues? Review the Republicans’ 2016 primary to know how this will end.

Can Bloomberg redeem himself?

Bloomberg was bad in his presidential debate debut last week. With his money, you get a second chance at first impression, or so he hopes. The former New York mayor, worth an estimated $60 billion, could help himself this week. His first shot at redemption comes Monday night when he appears at a CNN town hall for the first time. Just 24 hours later, he’ll join five leading rivals for a full-on debate. Perhaps he was surprised by the intensity of the Democratic pile-on during the first meeting. He won’t have any excuses this time. Don’t forget that Bloomberg has already spent more than $400 million on television advertising across the nation. That virtually guarantees him a chunk of the Super Tuesday vote.

Should we call it a comeback?

When is a double-digit loss a win? When you’re Joe Biden, apparently, and you’ve finished in a distant second place in Nevada after fourth and fifth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden’s campaign manager declared Nevada the beginning of a comeback, and before he left the state, Biden promised a victory in South Carolina on Saturday that would allow him to “take this thing back.” He’s certainly not the strong centrist that establishment Democrats hoped for, but Biden may be the only candidate not named Sanders with a legitimate chance of winning a state where they don’t live over the next eight days. The lifeline he got from Nevada may be meaningless, however, if he doesn’t win South Carolina decisively.

Will Warren turn on Bernie?

It’s obvious by now that Elizabeth Warren doesn’t like Bloomberg. She savaged him during the first debate, then repeatedly used him as foil — even mocking his height a la President Donald Trump — a tactic that no doubt helped her raise a lot of much-needed money.

The deeply personal attacks were closer to Sen. Marco Rubio’s “small hands” swipe at then-candidate Trump in 2016 than anything we’ve seen from the former Harvard professor in 2020. The larger question is whether Warren will turn on Sanders, a fellow progressive stalwart and longtime ally who has dominated the far-left lane so far. Tuesday night’s debate may be one of Warren’s final prime-time opportunities to do so in a meaningful way.

Are Democrats crossing a line on Russia?

The unified conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community was that the Russians sought to interfere in the 2016 presidential election to benefit Trump. The Russians are back, but this time in a different way and it’s affecting the Democratic race. In a fundraising email over the weekend, Buttigieg highlighted news that Russia has sought to intervene on Sanders’ behalf in 2020. And Biden went further, declaring from the podium in Nevada that Russian President Vladimir Putin would continue helping “somebody who he doesn’t think can beat Trump.”

Such attacks will live forever on the internet and raise long-term questions about the legitimacy of the Democratic front-runner’s strength. They’re also a reminder that there are few lines politicians won’t cross when they’re fighting for their survival.

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THE FINAL THOUGHT

South Carolina may be the focus, but this week is all about Super Tuesday. More than a dozen states will hold primary contests in eight days, and in many cases, voters in those states are already deep into early voting. By the end of March 3, nearly 40% of all delegates will be awarded. And based on the Democrats’ allocation rules, anyone coming out of Super Tuesday with a significant delegate lead will be almost impossible to catch in the weeks ahead.

It’s later than you think.

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2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.

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Follow Peoples at https://twitter.com/sppeoples

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Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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