WASHINGTON - Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said Wednesday he's staying in the race for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination, even as he acknowledged he's losing voters to former vice president Joe Biden on the question of which one of them has the better chance to defeat Republican President Donald Trump in November's national election.
"It was obviously not a good night for my campaign...," Sanders said of Tuesday's six state primary elections, four of which Biden won, including the day's biggest prize, Michigan, the country's auto manufacturing hub in the U.S. heartland. Sanders captured only the small upper Midwest state of North Dakota, while leading in the western state of Washington, with the votes still being counted.
Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, said he looks forward to debating Biden, now in his third run for the presidency over three decades, one-on-one on Sunday night. Sanders laid out a string of questions he plans to ask Biden about income inequality among Americans, climate change, free college tuition and why he opposes Sanders's plan for a government-controlled health care system in the U.S., among other issues.
He said a vast number of voters across the country have told him they favor his positions over Biden's more moderate political views. "There is strong majority support for our progressive agenda," Sanders contended.
But Sanders said at the same time many of these voters have also told him they are casting ballots for Biden because they think he, and not Sanders, has a better chance of defeating Trump to keep him from winning a second four-year term.
"We are losing the debate over electability," Sanders conceded. "Needless to say, I disagree with that assertion."
Sanders acknowledged that he is losing older voters to Biden, while defeating him among voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
After the Tuesday voting, the second straight week in which Biden has scored major wins over Sanders in the state-by-state Democratic contests, Biden increased his lead in pledged delegates to the party's national nominating convention in July to at least an 843-681 edge over Sanders. A total of 1,991 is needed to win the nomination, but Sanders will have to start winning the state nominating contests decisively in order to catch up.
Four more states vote next Tuesday -- Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Arizona -- all with sizable delegations to the party's national convention.
State delegates, however, are awarded proportionally based on the vote count, rather than winner take all, which typically has left both of the candidates with a share of each state's delegates.
Besides Michigan, Biden won contests Tuesday in Missouri in the Midwest, Mississippi in the South and Idaho in the West.
After a slow start in last month's voting, Biden told reporters in Philadelphia late Tuesday that he believes his campaign is "taking off," and he said Democrats will come together to retake the White House and unite the nation.
"I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their compassion. We share a common goal, and together we'll defeat Donald Trump," Biden said.
He and Sanders were both scheduled to hold Tuesday night rallies in Cleveland, Ohio, but canceled the events due to the coronavirus outbreak. Those cancellations may presage a dramatic change in campaigning practices, with both the Democratic candidates and Trump under pressure to limit the use of mass rallies to excite and motivate their supporters.
The Democratic National Committee announced there will be no live audience for the debate.
Based on pre-election polls, the results in Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi had been expected, especially in Mississippi with its significant African-American population, a bloc of voters who have favored Biden in other states. In Missouri, voter exit polls showed that Biden also won the African American vote, as well as those who called themselves political moderates or conservatives.
Other exit polls showed Biden capturing the votes of blue collar workers, an important subset of the American electorate that Trump collected a sizable portion of in winning the 2016 election.
Michigan was the key prize among six states that voted Tuesday, with Biden winning a majority of the 125 delegates at stake to the Democrats' national presidential nominating convention in July.
The state could also prove pivotal in the presidential election since it was one of a handful of Midwest "rust belt" states Trump unexpectedly won four years ago on his path to a four-year term in the White House.
Exit polls of voters Tuesday conducted by the U.S. cable news network CNN indicated about half of Democratic voters in Michigan and Washington said they would trust Biden more than Sanders to handle a major crisis as president. In Missouri, the spread was wider, with about 60% saying they trusted Biden more in such a situation.
The exit polls in Michigan and Washington also indicated Democratic voters considered themselves angry at the Trump administration.
The formerly long list of Democratic presidential candidates thinned markedly in the last 10 days, with challengers to Biden and Sanders dropping out of the contest just ahead of Super Tuesday voting a week ago or just after failing to win any states.
Gone from the race are former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Another former candidate, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, endorsed Biden Tuesday night on CNN shortly after Biden sewed up his victory in Michigan.
"The math says Joe is our prohibitive nominee," Yang said. "We've got to start pulling the party together."