By Amanda Becker and James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After all the rancor of the Democratic presidential race, front-runner Joe Biden has a chance in Sunday’s debate to extend an olive branch to Bernie Sanders and his fervent supporters in a bid for party unity before the general election fight.
Growing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration’s handling of the U.S. response could minimize conflict between the two rivals as they look instead to contrast their leadership with the Republican president’s in a time of crisis, Democratic strategists say.
Sunday’s debate may be the last such event of the Democratic nominating contest and comes at a time when the global coronavirus outbreak has rocked American life.
The crisis has prompted school closures and cancellations of sports tournaments and games, music concerts and political rallies in an election year. The debate itself was moved to Washington from Arizona and will have no in-person audience due to concerns about the coronavirus.
Following a string of nominating contest victories, Biden leads Sanders in delegates, and next week’s primary elections could put the former vice president on a nearly unstoppable path to the nomination.
The centrist Biden may now be in a position to try to find common ground with Sanders, a democratic socialist, a move that could help mend the fissure in the party between moderates and progressives, according to party veterans.
“Sunday’s debate could be an important step to heal and strengthen the party,” said Hari Sevugan, recently a top aide to former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. “A measured, respectful conversation could go a long way.”
The winner of the Democratic primary contest will face President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
Edison Research exit polls from Tuesday’s nominating contests showed that voters trust Biden to most effectively handle the response to the virus over Sanders. The health crisis is expected to take center stage on Sunday, providing another opening for Biden to position himself as a unifying force, strategists said.
The former vice president is not prone to conflict with fellow Democrats. The question remains whether the pugnacious Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont and an independent, would follow suit or keep trying to draw a clear contrast between the himself and Biden.
Some Democrats say lingering tensions between Sanders and presidential rival Hillary Clinton in 2016 played a role in her upset loss to Trump.
After being routed by Biden in Michigan and other primaries on Tuesday, Sanders seemed to signal he was less interested in attacking Biden personally and more intent on pushing him to address issues such as universal healthcare coverage, college affordability, climate change and poverty.
And Sanders suggested that if Biden is the nominee, he will need to appeal to young voters and Latino voters who have gravitated to Sanders.
For Biden, the challenge may be figuring out how to thread the needle of expressing support for Sanders’ efforts without aligning himself with his policies.
Biden can say that “while they share the same goals, they differ on the prescription,” Sevugan said.
‘AN OPEN HAND’
Biden’s team is under pressure from allies of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, another former presidential candidate, to adopt policies popular with progressives such as a wealth tax, a stepped-up estate tax and an equal-pay plan, according to several strategists familiar with the conversations.
A wealth tax “one, is supported by both Senators Sanders and Warren and two, speaks to the fundamentals of who the Democratic Party should be making clear they fight for,” said a Democratic strategist who was close to Warren’s campaign.
A similar dynamic played out between Sanders and Clinton in the 2016 primary, when Sanders said he would not drop out even after it became clear she would be the nominee.
The progressive wing of the party then successfully pushed for the addition of policies, including a $15-an-hour minimum wage, to the party’s convention platform. Sanders ultimately endorsed her.
Brian Fallon, Clinton’s spokesman in 2016, said that while Sanders’ supporters were unlikely to be “fully transferable” to Biden, Biden’s team must work to earn the support of as many as possible to avoid the narrow loss Clinton suffered.
“It begins with rhetorically stretching out an open hand,” Fallon said.
Biden has been resistant to Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, which would replace private health insurance, arguing it is too costly and that many Americans prefer to keep their current insurance.
Wendell Potter, a former healthcare executive who now works as an advocate for a government-run plan, said Biden must at least concede “the problems of our healthcare system are more severe than he’s acknowledging.”
Exit polls of Democratic voters from recent primaries showed strong support for Medicare for All.
Biden has promised to “build on” Obamacare by adding a public option that would leave the private insurance system in place.
Earlier this week, Biden praised the passion of Sanders and his supporters and promised to deliver a “bold, progressive vision to the American people.”
But his campaign has yet to indicate it would be inclined to embrace any of Sanders’ signature proposals. Biden’s agenda in its current form would already make him the most progressive Democrat in history if elected, a campaign aide said.
Matt Bennett, a vice president for Third Way, a Democratic think tank that advocates for centrist policies, said Biden could not afford to break leftward after moderates in the party coalesced around him.
“The guy who comes in second doesn’t get concessions,” Bennett said. “The problem with Bernie is that his ideas are so huge, they are sinking his campaign. Biden can’t take those on.”
(Reporting by Amanda Becker and James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)