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Democrats in Arkansas decide to back Biden

by Frank E. Lockwood, Tony Holt | March 4, 2020 at 7:13 a.m.
Joe Biden supporters Betsy Lavender (center) and state Rep. Jamie Scott (right), D-North Little Rock, celebrate Tuesday night at a watch party in downtown Little Rock. At left is Sean Hoey, state director of the Biden for Arkansas campaign. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

Former Vice President Joe Biden claimed victory in Arkansas' Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in second place ahead of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

All three candidates appeared likely to claim delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. Thirty-one delegates were up for grabs.

The win in Arkansas and a string of other Southern states, combined with other victories farther north, helped propel Biden, 77, to the front of the pack.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was in fourth place.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who suspended his campaign Sunday, and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who dropped out of the race on Monday, followed. Both candidates have thrown their support to Biden.

[RELATED » Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

The remaining candidates lagged far behind.

The unofficial returns were:

Biden 92,627

Sanders 51,064

Bloomberg 38,162

Warren 22,836

Buttigieg 7,656

Klobuchar 7,022

In the Republican presidential primary, President Donald Trump easily outdistanced former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and California businessman Roque "Rocky" De La Fuente.

The unofficial returns were:

Trump 228,291

Weld 4,973

De La Fuente 1,745

Biden, who served as vice president from 2009 to 2017, claimed victory in Arkansas with help from some of the state's most high-profile Democrats.

Former U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor and David Pryor, who both served with Biden in the Senate, were early supporters. Another former colleague, U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, added her endorsement over the weekend.

A long list of state legislators backed Biden as well, including Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock, Sen. Will Bond of Little Rock, Rep. Jamie Scott of North Little Rock, Frederick Love of Little Rock and Andrew Collins of Little Rock.

Rep. Tippi McCullough of Little Rock, who initially backed U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, switched to Biden shortly after Klobuchar suspended her campaign.

At the Copper Grill in Little Rock, Biden supporters gathered Tuesday to await the results.

They were not disappointed.

"I've been yelling and screaming already," Chesterfield said, as early returns flashed on the screen. "We're carrying the South. Not just Arkansas. We carried Virginia, North Carolina. We're in the running in Massachusetts, so we're excited."

The victory bodes well, Chesterfield said, for the candidate and the party he hopes to lead.

"It says that Biden resonates with people as a genuine human being who cares about folks and who has a message that can unite this country. That's what this is about: Uniting this country and moving this country forward," she said.

Biden supporters weren't the only ones crowing about Tuesday's vote.

Republicans also expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

"Tonight, President Trump is the clear winner in Arkansas with Republicans more united than ever behind him," Trump Victory spokeswoman Danielle Alvarez said in a written statement. "If Joe Biden is the best Democrats can put forward, Arkansans can look forward to another four years of fairer trade deals, job growth, and tremendous tax cuts under President Trump's administration."

Biden won Arkansas despite being heavily outspent by Bloomberg, a self-funded New York billionaire who flooded the airwaves with ads in the weeks leading up to the vote.

Bloomberg, who visited Arkansas three times after declaring his candidacy, invested heavily in the state, hiring 22 employees and opening offices in Little Rock, Fayetteville and Memphis.

Biden never visited the state, though his wife made two trips late in the campaign. Jill Biden, stopped in Little Rock for a fundraiser on Feb. 6, returning on the Sunday before the election to attend morning worship services at North Little Rock's First Baptist Church.

Biden's decision to bypass the state surprised some Arkansans.

While garnering support from highly regarded Arkansas Democrats, "As a whole, the Biden campaign structure seems to be the least organized in the state," state Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray said last month.

Despite his absence and his lackluster early polling, Biden ultimately was embraced by Democrats in Arkansas.

Bloomberg, gambling that he could jump-start his campaign on Super Tuesday, bypassed earlier contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, focusing instead on Arkansas and other places.

The strategy enabled him to win in American Samoa, but he had less success on the mainland.

It appeared Sanders would fall short of his 2016 performance, when he won 29.7% of the vote in Arkansas' Democratic primary. But he appeared to have won in Washington County, home of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

The state Democratic Party held its Super Tuesday watch party at the Library Kitchen + Lounge in the River Market. By the time the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., it was standing-room only as every booth and table was filled.

Luis Dominguez, a 23-year-old Sanders supporter, looked deflated as he watched Biden rack up victory upon victory.

"I didn't expect Biden to be so high," he said.

His friend, fellow Sanders voter Darren Boyd, said Super Tuesday was shaping up to be a "microcosm" of how voters across the country saw Sanders -- a compelling candidate but too idealistic for them to be comfortable voting for him.

"America, at the moment, is a country that just isn't quite ready for Bernie," Boyd said.

Boyd promised to vote for the Democratic nominee regardless of who claims it. Dominguez, branding himself a "Bernie-or-bust" voter, would not.

"Maybe if I lived in a swing state I'd consider it," he said, "but it would depend on how I felt that day."

Kim Zimmerman, 58, a Warren supporter, said she would enthusiastically support Biden if he became the nominee.

Biden "is the only one who can beat Trump," because voters know he would surround himself with "smart, decisive, experienced people," she said.

Blake Hyland, 24, an early Buttigieg supporter who voted for Warren, said he was "voting blue" regardless of whether it was Sanders, Biden or anyone else.

"A return to normalcy would be nice," he said.

Scott, at the Copper Grill, said Democrats have rallied behind a candidate who can unify the party and win in November.

"I feel like he's the best person who can find common ground," she aid.

"He won over every demographic," in South Carolina on Saturday, she said. "Regardless of education, race, gender [and] age, those people saw what I see in Joe Biden and that made my heart explode."

Metro on 03/04/2020

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