CHICAGO (AP) — Barnstorming through the Rust Belt, Bernie Sanders on Monday looked toward primary contests in five states as the linchpin of his strategy to turn the tide against Hillary Clinton and overcome her delegate edge in the Democratic primary. Clinton urged Democrats to unite behind her bid to focus on a far bigger threat: Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
"Do not rest. If there's an L stop you can go to, if there's a phone call you can make, please do everything you can in the next twenty-four plus hours to come out of these electivsaons with the wind at our backs," Clinton said at a Monday rally in Chicago. "We have the way forward to be able to start talking about not only unifying the Democratic party but unifying our country."
Clinton's pitch came as Trump blamed Sanders supporters for protests that prompted the billionaire mogul to cancel a rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago — just a few miles away from the union hall where Clinton wooed supporters. Sanders embarked upon a four-state swing through Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois, ending the day with an evening rally in Chicago.
Sanders' advisers saw a path to victory in Missouri and the potential for success in Illinois and Ohio, two states that have similar electorates as Michigan, where he upset Clinton last week. Victories in any of the states would give Sanders fresh momentum in what has become an uphill battle for the nomination. But contests in North Carolina and Florida, two states where voters have the option of voting early, posed a tougher challenge.
Clinton maintained an advantage in Florida, Tuesday's biggest delegate prize and one of the nation's premiere general election battlegrounds, putting Sanders at risk of losing more ground with delegates even if he fares well in the Midwest. Clinton's team tried to tamp down expectations for Tuesday night, stressing that the race remains close in the Midwest, where they hoped to avoid a repeat of the Michigan primary.
Reprising a theme of his victory in Michigan's primary last week, the Vermont senator pounded Clinton's past support for trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement during stops in Ohio's manufacturing belt. And he picked up the endorsement of the 192,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union, underscoring his credentials with union workers.
"When it came down whether you stand with corporate America, the people who wrote these agreements, or whether you stand with the working people of this country, I proudly stood with the workers," Sanders said in Youngstown, Ohio. "Secretary Clinton stood with the big money interests."
Unlike several weeks ago, when Sanders was reluctant to single out Clinton by name, he now regularly criticizes her support of "disastrous" trade deals, her vote to authorize the Iraq War in 2002 and her refusal to release transcripts of her lucrative private speeches to Wall Street after she departed the State Department.
In Illinois, where Clinton grew up, he has singled out embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Clinton ally whose approval ranks have sunk amid criticism of his record on policing and high-profile battles with public sector unions.
In Ohio and North Carolina, trade has been central in the primary fight. Sanders has repeatedly chided Clinton's past support of the North American Free Trade Agreement which her husband signed into law during the 1990s and her decision last year to come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership after calling it the "gold standard" as President Barack Obama's secretary of state.
Clinton has 768 pledged delegates compared to 554 for Sanders, according to a count by The Associated Press. Overall, Clinton holds 1,235 of total delegates, more than half the amount needed to clinch the nomination, while Sanders has 580, according to an AP analysis that includes superdelegates, elected officials and party leaders free to support the candidate of their choice. Based on the current total count including superdelegates, Sanders would need to win 61 percent of the remaining pledged delegates and uncommitted superdelegates to win the nomination.
Nearly 700 delegates are at stake in Tuesday's primaries and will be awarded proportionally, adding to Sanders' difficult path. Florida holds nearly one-third of the day's delegate slate, giving Clinton the opportunity to build to her delegate pile even if she narrowly loses the Midwest states.
Sanders' team sees more favorable political terrain in the weeks ahead. After Tuesday's contests, the campaign shifts westward, with contests in Arizona, Idaho and Utah on March 22 and Alaska, Hawaii and Washington state on March 26. April includes contests in Wisconsin, Wyoming and New York, which Clinton represented in the Senate but is becoming a major target for Sanders.
"We have a long-term game plan here," said Sanders senior adviser Tad Devine.
Thomas reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Hope Yen in Washington and Julie Carr Smyth in Akron, Ohio, contributed to this report.