Bernie Sanders has said repeatedly that as the schedule of Democratic primaries shifts to the West, he will begin to turn the tide on this presidential race. Now is his chance to prove it.
The Vermont senator is competing with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in three contests Tuesday night in Arizona, Idaho, and Utah. The two candidates will then face off in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington state on Saturday, where Sanders is expected to do well.
President Barack Obama told Democratic donors two weeks ago that Sanders' campaign was nearly over and that they would soon have to unite around Clinton, according to the New York Times.
But Sanders rejected that argument in a CNN interview on Tuesday, pointing out that many of the states that have voted thus far have been in the South, where Clinton had a huge advantage.
"Number one, I think we have a road — a narrow road, but a road to victory," Sanders told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "Number two, it is absurd — it is completely anti-democratic to tell some of the largest states in this country — California, New York state — you should not have a voice in helping to select the Democratic nominee."
The question is whether Sanders can close in on Clinton's nearly insurmountable 300-delegate lead in the primary race. Sanders is the favored candidate in some of these upcoming primaries and caucuses, particularly in the states voting on Saturday. But whether that will be enough to block Clinton's path to the nomination is an open question.
There's little reliable polling in any of the states voting on Tuesday night. Arizona would seem to favor Clinton, given her popularity in a state she won in the 2008 primary. Idaho and Utah, which are holding caucuses, represent Sanders' best chance of victory. He has spent more time in Idaho than Clinton, and believes that he can win the state as well as Utah, where he gave a foreign policy speech and held a rally on Tuesday.
"We think we're going to do well [in Utah]. We think we're going to do well in Idaho," Sanders said on CNN Monday night. "We think we have a chance — it's going to be tough — in Arizona."
With 85 delegates on the line, Arizona is the big prize on Tuesday night. Idaho and Utah have just 54 delegates combined. But unlike some of the Republican contests, all of the Democratic races are proportional, meaning that Clinton and Sanders will split the delegates based on how they perform in each state. Close races will result in near-ties among delegates, so Sanders will have to earn big victories in Idaho and Utah and hold Clinton in a close race in Arizona to win the night.
Both candidates have been competing for Arizona's Latino voters, who make up more than 30 percent of the state's population and 22 percent of eligible voters. Clinton has a long list of Latino surrogates in the state, including Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego and his wife, Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego.
Sanders, meanwhile, has been endorsed by Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who was one of the first members of Congress to join the senator's campaign. Grijalva has worked hard to bring Arizona into Sanders' column, and has recorded three television ads for the campaign, including one in Spanish.
Grijalva is the only member of Congress from Arizona who has endorsed Sanders. Clinton, meanwhile, has been endorsed by five of the state's nine superdelegates, including the Gallegos.
Clinton also has the backing of former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. Giffords was shot in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson in 2011 along with several constituents and staffers, six of whom died. She and Kelly have started Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun control group, and appear in a television ad supporting her campaign.
Sanders still has a tough hill to climb in this presidential race. Wins in Idaho and Utah won't help him to overcome Clinton's delegate lead, but could help to change the narrative around his candidacy after he lost in all five of the states that voted last week.
The senator and his supporters often complain, as he did on CNN Monday night, that by calling Clinton the frontrunner or calling on him to drop out, Democratic leaders and the media are ignoring voters in states that have yet to cast their ballots. In part, that's because most candidates at this point in the race would be running out of money and unable to continue on to the convention. Given Sanders' popularity with small donors, that doesn't seem to be a problem.
Sanders has a chance to use the remaining states to propel him to the nomination, but he'll need to win a majority of the contests and many of them by huge numbers to catch Clinton now. Sanders has won 10 states so far, but many of them were close contests. Clinton, meanwhile, scored blowouts in the South that helped to build her lead.
Sanders is still in the race, and the Western contests will help him, but the time he has to close the gap is running out.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Gabby Giffords' husband. Scott Kelly, the astronaut, is her brother-in-law. Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, is her husband. The two are identical twins.
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