LAS VEGAS (AP) — Terry Reece has long been skeptical that voters would back Bernie Sanders for president. Then the Vermont senator essentially tied for first place in the Democratic Party's Iowa caucuses and won its New Hampshire primary.
That forced Reece to rethink his assumptions about who can win the nomination. After months of leaning toward former Vice President Joe Biden, Reece filled out a preference card for Sanders during early voting this week in the Nevada caucuses.
"I think that people are kind of wanting to turn the pages and get more radical, or switch from the status quo," said Reece, a 62-year-old African American who owns a small media company in Las Vegas.
That's exactly the sentiment Sanders is counting on to carry him to victory in the battle to take on President Trump. Since the early days of Sanders’ second presidential campaign, he and his supporters have sought to allay concerns that he's a fringe candidate whose call for political revolution would doom the party to another humiliating defeat. The strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire gives him fresh evidence to make that case.
"The reason that we are going to win here in Nevada, with your help, the reason that we are going to win the Democratic nomination, with your help, the reason we are going to beat Trump is we have an agenda that speaks to the needs of working families, not the billionaire class," Sanders told a crowd at the University of Nevada Las Vegas on Tuesday.
Sanders faces high expectations in Nevada, which holds its Democratic presidential caucuses on Saturday. He has a strong organization and has generated enthusiasm among young and Latino voters. But plenty of hurdles remain.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is expected to use his debate stage premiere on Wednesday to attack Sanders’ call for economic and political revolution as unworkable and too liberal for mainstream voters who simply want to defeat Trump.
Sanders hasn't fully united the party's liberal wing and was denied the most coveted union endorsement in Nevada. His trademark Medicare for All proposal could unnerve voters in both major political parties who worry about higher taxes and the loss of private health insurance.
And while Sanders has notched a win, he has yet to post a commanding victory. Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, essentially tied with Sanders in Iowa and finished closely behind him in New Hampshire, a state the senator won by more than 20 percentage points in 2016.
Campaigning in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Buttigieg again raised questions about whether Sanders could unify the party.
"Sen. Sanders, I think, speaks to a lot of ideals that we all share," Buttigieg said. "But right now we need to make sure we're drawing as many people as we can into our coalition. And if the message goes out, 'Your choices are you either need to be for a revolution or you must be for the status quo,' I don't think most of us see ourselves in that picture."
But as the Democratic contest unfolds, many voters may see a win as a win and make their decisions accordingly, said Tim Miller, a former strategist with Jeb Bush's failed Republican presidential campaign in 2016.
"Voters want a winner," Miller said. "Voters want someone who can win in November, and there is a sheen that comes from winning primaries."