WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The search for a Democrat to challenge Republican U.S. President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election narrowed on Wednesday to a choice between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who staged a comeback in voting Super Tuesday to become the undisputed flag bearer of the party’s moderate wing.
Former Vice President Biden unexpectedly won at least nine of the 14 states up for grabs on Tuesday, including the major prize of Texas, and stormed ahead in the overall tally of delegates who will choose a presidential nominee at the Democratic convention in July.
His strong performance ended leftist U.S. Senator Sanders’ status as the Democratic front-runner and forced former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg out of the race altogether.
Bloomberg on Wednesday abandoned his presidential campaign and endorsed Biden, after spending lavishly out of his own pocket on ads across the United States but failing to deliver convincing results on Tuesday, the biggest day of voting in the Democratic nomination campaign with contests in 14 states.
“A viable path to the nomination no longer exists,” Bloomberg, 78, said in a statement. Endorsing Biden, Bloomberg said: “I will work to make him the next president of the United States.”
The media billionaire did not say whether he would spend part of his fortune to help Biden, but Bloomberg’s absence from the race will help the former vice president. Both men appeal to the centrist wing of the Democratic Party.
In a tweet addressed to Bloomberg, Biden wrote, “I can’t thank you enough for your support—and for your tireless work on everything from gun safety reform to climate change. This race is bigger than candidates and bigger than politics. It’s about defeating Donald Trump, and with your help, we’re gonna do it.”
In another move that could reshape the race, Elizabeth Warren, 70, is “talking to her team to assess the path forward,” a campaign aide said.
The liberal U.S. senator from Massachusetts, who was seeking to become the nation’s first female president, had disappointing results across the board on Tuesday, including coming in third in her home state.
A resurgent Biden, 77, rolled to electoral victories across the South, Midwest and New England, setting up a one-on-one battle against Sanders, who won three states and led in California.
GRAPHIC: Delegate tracker and results – here
Biden, whose campaign had been on life support just weeks ago, registered surprise victories in Texas and Massachusetts.
U.S. stocks jumped on Wednesday as investors cheered Biden’s good night. Healthcare stocks provided the biggest boost as Sanders and his “Medicare for All” proposal, which would eliminate private health insurance, looked less likely to become a reality.
Biden has emerged as a consensus champion for the moderates in the party against Sanders, a veteran left-winger with strong support among youth.
“For those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” Biden told roaring supporters in Los Angeles. “We are very much alive!”
Until a week ago, Biden had trailed Sanders in most state and national opinion polls.
Biden argues that after two terms by President Barack Obama’s side and decades as a U.S. senator, he has the experience both to beat Trump and then run the country. He has promised greater access to healthcare and to mend relations with traditional U.S. allies in Europe that were frayed by Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
GRAPHIC: Where the candidates stand on key issues – here
Sanders, a democratic socialist, wants to establish a free universal healthcare system and eliminate private health insurance, forgive student loan debt and enact the “Green New Deal” of sweeping economic policies to fight climate change.
Without naming him, Sanders took direct aim at Biden during a rally on Tuesday in Vermont, criticizing Biden’s 2002 Senate vote in favor of war in Iraq and his support for global trade deals that Sanders opposed.
“We’re going to win the Democratic nomination and we are going to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of this country,” Sanders said, referring to Trump.
If Warren drops out, Sanders might benefit from some of her supporters shifting to him.
In an email to her campaign staff, Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, offered a sobering assessment of Super Tuesday, just three weeks after he said internal projections showed she would finish in the top two in eight states.
“Last night, we fell well short of viability goals and projections, and we are disappointed in the results,” he said.
Warren, he said, would “take time right now to think through the right way to continue this fight.”
Trump said Sanders would have done better on Tuesday if Warren had dropped out of the race beforehand and backed him. “Had Warren endorsed Bernie, we would have had a different story now,” he told reporters in the White House.
More than one-third of the delegates who will pick the Democratic nominee at a July convention were up for grabs on Tuesday.
Tallies after Tuesday showed Biden leading Sanders in delegates overall by 433 to 388. A candidate needs 1,991 delegates to win the Democratic nomination on the first ballot at July’s party convention.
GRAPHIC: Calendar of each state’s Democratic nominating contest and its allocated delegates – here
In Tuesday’s biggest upset, Biden was projected by Edison Research to have won Texas, the largest prize after California. Sanders invested heavily in Texas and was counting on its Latino voters to propel him to victory.
Sanders, the onetime front-runner who had hoped to take a big step toward the nomination on Tuesday, won Colorado, Utah and his home state of Vermont, Edison Research said.
Biden, with overwhelming support from African-American, moderate and older voters, swept to wins in Alabama, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia.
Fox News and the Associated Press projected Sanders winning California, where 415 delegates are up for grabs. Edison Research and other networks held off declaring a winner there as results trickled in. By early Wednesday afternoon, Sanders was ahead by 8.7 percentage points with almost 87% of precincts reporting.
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Ginger Gibson, Jason Lange, Joseph Ax and John Whitesides,; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Jonathan Oatis