Former Vice President Joe Biden won the first prizes on a fresh night of nominating battles with wins in Mississippi and Missouri, CNN projects, keeping a hot streak going as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders looks to the Midwest and the West to launch his own comeback narrative.
Biden's victory confirms his strength among African American voters in Southern states and gives him bragging rights in a heartland tussle, an advantage he hopes to drive home to further extend his delegate lead.
But other primaries in Idaho, Michigan and Washington state and caucuses in North Dakota are taking place against the increasingly grim backdrop of the worsening coronavirus crisis. Both Biden and Sanders canceled planned election night rallies in another key state, Ohio, that goes to the polls next week. The former vice president plans instead to give an address without an audience at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center.
Officials in Super Tuesday II states were disinfecting polling booths in an effort to prevent further infections from the novel coronavirus. Luckily, the primary in Washington state, one of the worst hit regions, mostly involves mail-in ballots. Officials still cautioned voters not to lick their envelopes before mailing in their preferences.
Biden's stunning comeback after the South Carolina primary and the first Super Tuesday races last week suddenly reversed the Vermont senator's momentum. Biden, rather than Sanders, suddenly has the lead by 77 delegates, though California -- a state where the democratic socialist leads -- still has 22% of its vote outstanding.
Sanders needs good results Tuesday across the board since delegate-rich states favorable to Biden loom in the coming weeks. A poor performance by Sanders could allow his rival to stretch a delegate lead that might make it hard for him to catch up given the Democratic proportional system.
But a Sanders surge would revive the specter of a bruising delegate race right up to, and possibly through, the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July.
All eyes on Michigan
The state that might offer the biggest clues to the fate of the now two-man Democratic duel and November's election is Michigan, where Sanders narrowly beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The first big Midwest swing state to vote in the Democratic race ought to be home turf for Sanders given his strong connection to working class white voters and his populist message on trade. Such a recipe helped President Donald Trump become the first Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988 to capture the Great Lakes State as he headed to the White House in 2016.
Yet Biden also has a long history and connections in the state, and has been lifted by the consolidation of the moderate Democratic field around him since his South Carolina triumph.
The former Delaware senator was part of Barack Obama's presidential ticket that won Michigan twice. He's touted his role in securing a bailout during the Great Recession that saved iconic auto giants that are major employers, and have tributary supply chains throughout the state. Biden is banking on a coalition of African American voters in cities like Detroit and suburban college educated white voters.
But recent results have also seen him increasing his share of other white voters, and he has a legacy of tight ties with labor unions -- a traditionally strong Michigan constituency -- that could help him move onto Sanders' turf.
Initial exit polls spelled out some good news for the former vice president. The exit polls showed Biden was trusted by roughly half of Democratic primary voters in Michigan to handle a major crisis, compared to about a third who said the same of Sanders. In Missouri, about 6 in 10 said they would trust Biden to handle a major crisis compared to about a quarter who said the same of Sanders.
In a 2018 midterm election preview of Tuesday's race, now-Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer faced down a primary challenge from Sanders-supported candidate Abdul el-Sayed, who is now a CNN commentator. Whitmer has endorsed Biden, who may profit from her political network given his own rudimentary organization in post-Super Tuesday states. Biden did have a fundraising surge after Super Tuesday, but has only had a week to use that to bolster his organization in states like Michigan.
Michigan will hand out 125 pledged delegates on Tuesday night, the most on offer on the second Super Tuesday.
Biden and Sanders wage endorsement duel
Sanders is highlighting his own big endorsement, that of Rev. Jesse Jackson, who won a caucus in Michigan during his 1988 presidential campaign and may offer the Vermont senator an opening into the state's critical African American community.
He is also slamming Biden for his past support for trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the former vice president's support of trade deals with China, which he says helped to devastate manufacturing in Michigan.
And Sanders believes he is far better positioned than the former vice president to beat Trump, despite the contrary views of the centrist portions of party that are gathering around Biden.
"This is really a no-brainer. Our campaign is the campaign that can bring young people into the political process, that can speak to working class people, some of whom voted for Trump," Sanders said on "Cuomo Prime Time" on CNN on Monday.
The Biden campaign however is increasingly confident about its prospects in Michigan, and also has high hopes that Mississippi and Missouri could help the veteran Democrat begin to build an unassailable delegate lead.
"This is Bernie's night to prove he's still viable," a Biden adviser told CNN's Arlette Saenz, while predicting that the result in Michigan would be "close."
"Our strategy is to make up any deficit we might have in Michigan by running up the score in advantageous counties in Mississippi and other places, like we did on Super Tuesday," the adviser said.
"But bottom line, this is Bernie's night to prove he's still viable. Not ours. We expect to pick up some delegates tonight but if Bernie doesn't perform well tonight, this could be game over for Bernie and the bros."
This is a breaking story and will be updated.