Sen. Bernie Sanders has convened a series of weighty discussions about the future of his presidential campaign with his closest confidants, according to two people with direct knowledge of the conversations, and at least three potential paths forward have come up in the private talks.
One option that has been raised: keep the campaign technically active with a goal of winning votes and accumulating delegates to the July nominating convention, but forgo attack ads aimed at delegate leader Joe Biden. Another: stay in the race and aggressively compete for the nomination. A third choice: end the campaign.
The people with knowledge of the talks spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations. They cautioned that other options or nuances may also be on the table and stressed that Sanders, I-Vt., had not made up his mind as of Friday evening. A campaign spokesman did not dispute their account.
After suffering decisive losses in three more primaries Tuesday, and standing almost no chance of catching Biden in the race for the Democratic nomination, Sanders decided to return home to Vermont to assess his future.
The senator is expected to reach a decision about the way forward in consultation with his wife and closest adviser, Jane Sanders. Campaign officials have signaled that he is not in any rush.
Outside supporters have publicly suggested a range of different options, underlining the difficult dilemma Sanders is confronting.
Larry Cohen, a close ally who helms a nonprofit aligned with the senator, is advocating that Sanders do three things: push for mail-in balloting for the remaining primaries to curb the risk to voters from the coronavirus; stay in the race to accumulate enough delegates to influence the party platform; and forge a working conversation with Biden that acknowledges that the former vice president, not him, has the path to a majority of pledged delegates.
"Just a dialogue with Biden, not attacks," said Cohen.
RoseAnn DeMoro, a close Sanders friend and former nurses' union head, said Sanders should not approach the race as a done deal and ought to treat a come-from-behind victory in future contests as a possibility given the volatility of the times.
"I think there'll be openings that we don't know" about, said DeMoro, warning that it would be foolish to concede to Biden.
But with Biden staked to a solid lead and the future of the remaining primaries in doubt, many in the party are calling for Sanders to bow out, in the name of unity and in recognition of the divisions that could deepen if he sticks around. They are eager to pivot to a general election posture against Trump and want to empower Biden to get started as soon as possible.
Biden has made entreaties to Sanders and his supporters, embracing policies the senator has championed and nodding to his youthful movement in recent speeches. Aides from the two campaigns have been in close touch over the coronavirus, officials from both sides said this week, outlining a potential path for negotiations that could lead to an exit more acceptable to Sanders.
It's not clear he would take it, however. Sanders appears as keen as ever on using his platform to advance his own ideas about how to combat the impact of the coronavirus, as he did Friday evening when he convened a virtual discussion.
"This a moment that history will look back on and say: How did the people of the United States respond?" Sanders said in his opening remarks. He has put forward a plan that draws on his longtime calls for a universal health care system and calls for sweeping new protections for working-class people.
Those close to the senator say that in recent days he has immersed himself in finding solutions to mitigate the crisis. Many of his supporters point to the economic and public health problems arising from it as justification for the far-reaching reforms he has long advocated.
In other words, they say, it's a moment that calls out for Sanders to stay onstage, not exit.
Some in the senator's orbit pointed out another potential thicket: the disconnect between the officials spearheading the campaign and the legions of fans who have powered a movement that started when he rose to prominence in the 2016 campaign.
The two domains don't always operate on the same wavelength, and in this case, some feel, there is far more passion among average supporters for him to stick around than there is among the campaign professionals around him.
At 78, Sanders might well be in his final national campaign. Unlike four years ago, when there was a clear incentive to keep running against Hillary Clinton and build a still-budding movement, he came into this race as a known entity with a proven following - making his current political aspirations less clear.