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How The Coronavirus Crisis Is Changing Bernie Sanders' Campaign Message


You know, for a minute there, it looked like Joe Biden would quickly wrap up the Democratic nomination for president. When Senator Bernie Sanders went home to Vermont to contemplate things, many viewed it as a signal he would drop out of the race. But the coronavirus crisis might have changed his immediate calculation. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Since news about the Democratic primary has taken a back seat lately, let's recap. These were the headlines just a week and a half ago.


SIMON: Joe Biden is projected to win the state of Florida, according to...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: CNN is projecting Joe Biden will sweep Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: He essentially won the nomination this evening, winning...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Bernie Sanders isn't yet dropping out of the race, though his campaign announced today it is reassessing...

KHALID: It was the third week in a row that Sanders had lost big, and he was facing calls to drop out. But then the focus turned to Capitol Hill, where Congress was debating a roughly $2 trillion rescue package as the country suffered from record unemployment. And the Vermont senator took to the Senate floor to defend additional unemployment benefits. He mocked some conservatives for worrying that low-wage workers might end up with more money.


BERNIE SANDERS: With the 600 bucks on top of their normal - their regular unemployment check might be making a few bucks more for four months. Oh, my word. Will the universe survive?

KHALID: That video clip went viral.

ANA MARIA ARCHILA: I think that this moment is proving the urgency of the ideas that Bernie Sanders promoted from the beginning.

KHALID: Ana Maria Archila is the co-director of The Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive group that has endorsed Sanders.

ARCHILA: The reality that so many people have health care that's attached to their jobs and how vulnerable that makes them is showing its, you know, face right now.

KHALID: Allies and supporters of Sanders feel this last week has resuscitated his campaign. They point to cash payments, expanded unemployment and paid sick time off as all ideas that Sanders has long advocated for. They're not saying this means that Sanders will stay in the race till June and fight till the last primary, nor are they saying he should. But they emphasize that he has more influence in power because he's still a presidential candidate.

ARCHILA: The campaign is a vehicle through which he can continue to engage people. So even for that reason alone, the campaign is important.

KHALID: In terms of winning the nomination, Sanders is behind Biden by about 300 delegates, and he knows what that means.

SANDERS: It's going to be a very steep road. I would not deny that for a moment.

KHALID: Sanders continues to campaign, holding virtual town halls and sending around emails to his supporters. But his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, says the message has changed.

FAIZ SHAKIR: In every classical facet of what a campaign does, we have basically moved away from that and become a coronavirus campaign.

KHALID: So, for example, they're not attacking Joe Biden. They're trying to educate people about the virus and the economic assistance available. And then there's the money part of all of this.

SHAKIR: The fundraising, in fact, that you associate with a campaign of raising for the candidate has all suspended. And all we're raising for is for groups who are doing front line work to help vulnerable communities.

KHALID: Instead of money for the campaign, Shakir says they've raised about $3 million for coronavirus aid. As for Sanders' candidacy, he says they're still reassessing. Barry Burden runs the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin.

BARRY BURDEN: You know, it's Sanders' last stand in electoral politics, that he's old enough that I don't think anyone expects him to make another run for the presidency. And he may be in his last term in the Senate or near it. Right now, he still has something of a national stage.

KHALID: Without a national campaign, Sanders' megaphone won't be as loud, whether it's for himself, his issues or helping with the crisis. Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "FOREST SANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.