WASHINGTON - Nevada votes next and then South Carolina. But top Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination are already looking ahead to the biggest prize on the primary calendar: Super Tuesday, the slate of contests when more than a dozen states go to the polls.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren is holding a town hall on Thursday night in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, a day before Sen. Bernie Sanders makes two North Carolina stops, then hits Texas. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will campaign in California between fundraisers in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
All four states vote March 3, along with a crush of others, from Alabama to Colorado and from Maine to Utah, as well as Warren's home state of Massachusetts and Sanders' native Vermont. More than 1,300 delegates to the Democratic National Convention are at stake, about a third of the total.
The focus on Super Tuesday comes at a pivotal point in the campaign. For Sanders and Buttigieg, who have emerged in strong positions after contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the travel gives them an opportunity to show their national appeal and woo larger concentrations of nonwhite voters. For struggling candidates like Warren, it's a signal that they are still in the fight.
And for everyone, it's a chance to prove they won't cede this swath of delegate-rich states to Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor who has spent months building his campaign around Super Tuesday. He campaigned in Tennessee on Wednesday and will be in Texas and North Carolina on Thursday.
“All bets are off this cycle,” said Texas Democratic strategist Colin Strother, who is bullish on Bloomberg's chances of resonating in his state and beyond.
So far, there's no sign that candidates are completely bypassing Nevada or South Carolina. Every leading contender will be in Nevada this weekend as early voting begins. Democrats will caucus there on Feb. 22.
But some are shifting their resources as they begin an awkward balancing act of paying attention to the remaining early states while stockpiling enough money to keep themselves in the conversation in the bevy of contests unfolding next month. Warren, for instance, will be in South Carolina on Friday but is pulling television advertising from the state after this weekend. Some of that money will instead go to the Super Tuesday state of Maine.
Bloomberg, who is self-funding his campaign, doesn't have to make such considerations. He's skipped the first four states to deploy a political shock-and-awe campaign after that, spending heavily on television ads while already hiring more than 2,100 staffers in 40 states and U.S. territories, including all voting on Super Tuesday.
Past candidates have tried to forgo the early states in favor of larger ones voting later, with little success -- including another former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, in 2008. But Bloomberg is making a larger bet on doing so than anyone has. He's worth an estimated $60 billion and has already spent more than $200 million to hastily build a campaign infrastructure -- with promises of plenty more where that came from.
The candidates doing battle before Super Tuesday, meanwhile, are a study in contrasts. Warren has deep campaign infrastructure in around 30 states but little momentum. Former Vice President Joe Biden left New Hampshire for South Carolina before the polls even closed on Tuesday, has important connections there and is counting on that to carry him in other southern Super Tuesday states. But he, so far, has fared worse than Warren.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar placed a strong third in New Hampshire but hasn't yet built a national campaign, while Buttigieg is on a roll but faces questions about his appeal beyond the early majority-white states.
Fresh off his New Hampshire win, Sanders has already predicted victory in Nevada and California, pointing in part to his campaign's outreach to Hispanic voters. But he's also bet on record turnout that never materialized in Iowa, despite his efforts to grow the electorate.
Warren and Sanders have been sharply critical of Bloomberg, accusing him of trying to buy the election. In a memo coming out of New Hampshire, Warren's team sought to reassure supporters that it will find its political footing on Super Tuesday, arguing the senator should win the minimum support required to claim delegates, at least 15%, in 108 of the 150 districts voting, or two-thirds of the Super Tuesday map.
“Warren is poised to finish in the top two in eight of 14 Super Tuesday states and `”n the top three in all of them,'' Warren's campaign manager, Roger Lau, wrote.
States like Texas and California are so large that on-the-ground retail politicking often doesn't work well there. But Super Tuesday state residents have already seen weeks of Bloomberg ads, Strother said, and that could potentially already be swaying those participating in early voting, which is underway in places like Minnesota.
“It's unprecedented what he's doing and the money he's spending,” Strother said. “He's running a national campaign, which is what all these other candidates wish they could do.”