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Joe Biden Is Poised to Deliver the Biggest Surprise of 2020: A Short, Orderly Primary

The state of our union is unsettled, chaotic, impossible to pin down. The state of the Democratic primary, improbably, is not.

With a string of commanding victories on Tuesday — Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, probably any other “M” state that might have bothered with a primary this week — Joe Biden appears poised to complete one of the most striking turnarounds in recent campaign memory, finding himself in a dominant position only 10 days after the first state victory of his three presidential runs. His remarkable reversal has banished Senator Bernie Sanders to a familiar electoral perch: an insurgent progressive long shot straining to catch an establishment favorite.

The former vice president has won in the South, in the Northeast, in the Midwest. He has won large states and small ones. He has won in places where his strength with African-Americans could carry him and in others where such residents are fewer and far between.

So thorough is Mr. Biden’s hold on the party now that any collapse would probably require a political U-turn as sharp as the one that precipitated his rise. And as 2020 lurches into a logistically uncertain phase, with rallies canceled over coronavirus fears and voters more likely to privilege steady leadership, Mr. Biden is consistently and significantly outpacing Mr. Sanders on the crucial measure of whom to trust in a crisis, according to exit polls.

Next week’s contests include states where Mr. Biden is expected to perform well again. In Florida, the largest prize on the map until late April, his appeal to older voters and moderates, coupled with Mr. Sanders’s struggles with Cuban-Americans, has Mr. Biden primed for the kind of delegate haul that can only come with a true blowout. A week later, on March 24, the race moves to Georgia, where a large black population is expected to help deliver Mr. Biden another rout.

Unlike 2016, when Mr. Sanders extended his race against Hillary Clinton with a series of victories in caucuses, a format in which he has excelled, this year’s calendar has many more traditional primaries, supplying fewer chances for Mr. Sanders to drive up margins and keep the delegate tally close.

The result — implausible as it seemed last month, when Mr. Biden faltered so badly in Iowa and New Hampshire that establishment Democrats indulged fantasies about a contested convention to stop Mr. Sanders — is a race that could be nearing its functional end.

It is difficult to overstate the whiplash. The last time Mr. Biden ditched one of his own election night parties, he was careening toward a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire in mid-February, skipping out on a Nashua gathering to seek refuge in South Carolina and accept his election-night fate from a safe distance.

On Tuesday, he again pulled out of an event — but this time, out of concerns that his crowd in Cleveland could be exposed to health risks amid the coronavirus scare. Mr. Biden headed instead to Philadelphia, the site of his campaign headquarters, where at the National Constitution Center he sought to project resolve in a time of national anxiety.

With his wife, Jill Biden, by his side, Mr. Biden appeared to describe the race as he sees it now: effectively over on the Democratic side — he thanked Mr. Sanders and his supporters for their “passion” — leaving voters with a choice between himself and President Trump.

And that, he suggested, was not a close call.

“At this moment, when there’s so much fear in the country, and there’s so much fear across the world, we need American leadership,” Mr. Biden said. “We need presidential leadership that’s honest, trusted, truthful and steady. Reassuring leadership.”

Mr. Sanders and his team have not ceded the election publicly, though as the latest election returns came in, his campaign said he would not be speaking Tuesday night. His supporters say that there are many states yet to weigh in, many issues yet to litigate, many chances left for Mr. Biden to squander his advantages — as he has, on and off, for much of the past year as a would-be front-runner who surrendered the label. The Sanders campaign has been eager for the scheduled debate this Sunday, the first one-on-one session with Mr. Biden, a lengthy unscripted setting that could showcase his propensity for missteps.

But if Mr. Sanders could not hold his own on Tuesday — especially in a state like Michigan, the site of his most memorable primary victory of 2016 — it is becoming hard to imagine where he might.

In a sense, Mr. Biden is offering something of a 2016 do-over, coated in patriotism and wishful thinking: Remove Mr. Trump. Prove that the country does not represent his values. And let the work of repair begin, dooming the 45th president to history’s amnesia, eventually.

Mr. Biden decided against a run four years ago as he mourned his son Beau, who died in May 2015. Now, he is running the kind of campaign that voters might expect from a vice president seeking a promotion immediately after his time as second in command, as if the last four years could be effectively elided. He is promising continuity with his party’s prior administration, pledging to build on successes without wide-scale overhaul and even presenting himself as more of a transitional figure than a long-term standard-bearer.

“I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” Mr. Biden said in Detroit on Monday night, campaigning with new endorsers like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”

Throughout the campaign, he has declined to meet the demands of the loudest voices on the left — he has super PAC support, attends high-dollar fund-raisers and remains unapologetic about overtures to Republicans — and none of it hurt him much. Instead, Mr. Biden is enticing Democrats with a bloodless bargain: a return to normal — or whatever this nation was on Nov. 7, 2016 — and a vow to make Mr. Trump go away, even if he rarely emphasizes a bold new policy vision.

It is a pitch that shares some elements with Mrs. Clinton’s in 2016, centered often on Mr. Trump’s character and behavior. Mr. Biden and his team seem convinced that the reality of Mr. Trump’s tenure will yield a different outcome this time, with the daily tumult more visceral to voters now than it was in Mrs. Clinton’s prescient-but-hypothetical predictions of executive disorder and excessive tweeting.

There is also the messenger to consider. Mr. Biden recently remarked on an “unfair” sexism in the campaign four years ago. Then came an aside, blunt but true: “That’s not going to happen with me.”

Mr. Sanders is summoning 2016 memories of another sort. After his setbacks this month, he finds himself in much the same bind he faced against Mrs. Clinton, seeking ways to prolong the primary but finding few opportunities for true breakthroughs.

In recent days, Mr. Sanders and his allies have made the case that Democrats would be foolish to nominate the more moderate candidate once again, reminding audiences of Mr. Biden’s potential vulnerabilities on matters of trade and the Iraq war.

“Lots of flashbacks,” said Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and Mr. Sanders’s national campaign co-chair. “2016 has never ended.”

Mr. Trump, she added, was sure to reprise a formula that worked for him the last time, if Democrats let him. “You best believe Donald J. Trump is going to make this a repeat of 2016,” Ms. Turner said, comparing Mr. Biden’s record to Mrs. Clinton’s. “There are so many similarities for him to hit.”

The president, still known to recount the details of his election victory years after the fact, is not the only veteran of that campaign inclined to linger over it. Mrs. Clinton is starring in a new documentary series in which her loss is featured prominently.

And Mr. Sanders, pressed repeatedly of late about whether his attacks on Mr. Biden might damage the former vice president in November, appeared to grow frustrated last week with a trope he recognized well.

“I heard that back in 2016,” he told reporters in Phoenix. “2016, the feeling was, ‘We should anoint the candidate, and get everybody else — get out of the race.’ Is that really what democracy is about?”

Mr. Biden has not generally felt like a candidate on a glide path to an anointing, though he has appeared exceedingly happy on the campaign trail in recent days, wearing his signature aviator sunglasses indoors at an ice cream shop in California last week and telling reporters about his cash windfall between spoonfuls.

But winning has not changed the underlying weaknesses that defined him through the early states. Despite the growing presence of teleprompters, he still sometimes sets off on long tangents and makes verbal blunders.

He continues to struggle to excite some young people and progressives. He can lose his temper in heated and colorful ways, a trait that delights some voters who take it as a sign of vigor but strikes others as unseemly for a man pursuing the statesman’s mantle. (Mr. Biden swore at a man in Michigan who had suggested Mr. Biden wanted to confiscate guns. “Don’t be such a horse’s ass,” he said at another point in the exchange.)

After Iowa, Mr. Biden’s team underwent a shake-up, and people inside and outside the campaign have since reported more signs of a righted ship. Just last week, three former rivals — Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke — announced their endorsements in the span of a few hours, in an extraordinary show of force that sent Mr. Biden into Super Tuesday with a burst of momentum and free media.

It was the kind of dramatic turn that felt essential to boosting a campaign eager for any jolt it could find as it sought to catch up to Mr. Sanders, the early delegate leader.

A week later, Mr. Biden’s success registered as something even more stunning, in its way: a little boring.

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