“Tonight we invite Senator Warren’s supporters into our campaign, because I think they will find many of the issues that Senator Warren campaigned on are exactly the issues that we are fighting for," he said.
In a speech that largely emphasized unity, he promised he’d still throw his support to Biden, the only other remaining competitive contender, if Biden receives the Democratic nomination.
A diverse, youthful crowd of Sanders supporters gathered to hear the independent senator speak at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, filling about two-thirds of the 14,000 capacity venue. The turnout was nevertheless a stark contrast to the packed stadium when Republican incumbent President Trump took the same stage three weeks before.
The Sanders rally came two days after the self-described democratic socialist was dealt a crushing blow on Super Tuesday, winning only four states to former Vice President Joe Biden’s 10.
It was one of his first speeches since the unexpected Biden surge, which challenged notions of the Sanders campaign’s promised “political revolution” turnout in key southern and Midwestern states.
Within rapid succession in the days before and after Super Tuesday, other Democratic candidates dropped out — and former competitors Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg, and Beto O’Rourke have now all endorsed Biden.
By Wednesday, both local Arizona Senate candidate Mark Kelly and Senator Kyrsten Sinema had also thrown their support to Biden over Sanders.
Once-frontrunner Warren, the last competitive female candidate in what began as the most diverse Democratic field in United States history, meanwhile announced she was suspending her campaign and has not yet issued an endorsement.
Sanders called the Massachusetts senator a “good friend of mine,” and took the opportunity to congratulate her on a strong campaign before inviting her supporters to back him in the coming primaries.
Sanders then turned his attention to Biden.
“As this becomes a two-person contest, it is important for people to look at the record,” Sanders said.
Stifling boos from the crowd at the mention of Biden’s name – “No, no, no,” Sanders said, shooing off the noise with his right hand — he noted he would support Biden should he win more delegates at the end of the process.
“Joe is a decent guy, and if he wins, I’ll be there for him,” Sanders said. “Because our differences are minimal compared to the differences we have with Trump.
“But let me contrast for a moment some of the differences in views that Biden and I have.”
The senator compared their voting records on the war in Iraq (Bernie has always opposed it, though Biden has since lamented the decision to enter the conflict), trade deals like NAFTA (Bernie opposed it, Biden did not), expansion of Social Security benefits (Bernie has consistently supported this initiative, Biden has wavered), and LGBTQ rights (Bernie voted against Don't Ask Don't Tell, Biden supported it), as he had in previous Democratic debates.
The senator was joined by many young hopefuls, though a few skeptics tuned in as well, including Jennifer Harrison of the Arizona Patriots, a far-right anti-immigrant organization based in the Valley. The group is notorious for its protests outside churches providing aid to migrants or city council meetings discussing sanctuary city measures, but Harrison told New Times she was not there to cause any trouble.
“We’re here to see the commie,” she said.
But about midway through the Vermont senator’s speech, he was interrupted by the sound of the crowd’s booing. He looked up to see two men being arrested by Arizona Department of Public Safety officers who had tried to hang a Nazi flag in the rafters of the coliseum behind Sanders.
Sanders uttered something similar to what he’d said during another attempted interruption earlier in the rally: “Whoever it was, you’re a little outnumbered tonight, and more importantly, you’re going to be outnumbered in November.”
Beyond early messages specifically geared toward Warren and Biden, the Democratic candidate spoke little on his plans to appeal to swing voters in Arizona.
Instead, he focused on his traditional campaign issues that have always appealed to his progressive base: criminal justice reform, a green new deal, universal health care, and free college education for all (in a largely young audience, this promise was met with the loudest applause).
“Did you know it costs more money to lock someone up than it does to send them to the University of Arizona?” Sanders asked the audience at one point. (Fact check: This is true, if you’re looking at the in-state tuition cost of attending the university, which is about half the $25,000 a year it costs to incarcerate someone in the state. On the other hand, with room and board, the U of A says it costs $30,500 per year for residents with university housing.)
“I think people in Arizona are ready for a change,” said Samantha Ineich. “My hope is that Warren endorses Bernie, and then all of those people get together and defeat Biden. There’s hope.”
Sanders heads to Michigan today, having cancelled a planned rally in Mississippi and signaling a possible pivot in strategy towards the Midwest after his sweeping loss against Biden in southern states on Tuesday.
Sanders is scheduled to return to Phoenix for a Democratic debate against Biden on March 15, two days before Arizona’s presidential preference election.
Arizona holds its presidential primary along with four other states.