Who, from a Democratic field that once numbered more than two dozen, was best suited equipped to take on and defeat Donald Trump.
Over the course of a few days at the beginning of March, the field was whittled down to two men aged in their late 70s, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, representing different political ideologies, and each claiming they had what it took.
And then, rapidly, another huge story took over, dominating the energies and attentions of not just the nation, but the world, and making the Democratic primary process and its $1bn price tag suddenly feel inconsequential and undeserving of our time. The last debate, involving just Biden and Sanders and held under coronavirus safety protocols, underscored how business-as-usual had been upended.
And yet the race goes on, or rather it sits as it did after the two men, along with Trump, were obliged to give up live campaigning. As the coronavirus crisis has raged, the contest race into which was poured huge sums of money, passion and labour, appears as if set in aspic.
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On Wednesday, conscious of how the fight against Covid-19 has robbed him of the airtime he had anticipated and reduced both him and his opponent to delivering livestreams from their respective headquarters in Vermont and Delaware, Biden sought to kickstart the process.
In a video news briefing in which he took aim at Trump’s response to the crisis, the former vice president suggested he would not take part in the party’s 12th debate, due to he held some time next month and in which Sanders had suggested he will participate.
“My focus is just dealing with this crisis right now,” he said. “I haven’t thought about any more debates. I think we’ve had enough debates. I think we should get on with this.”
Observers say the frustration expressed by the 77-year-old Biden points to the unprecedented landscape in which the 2020 race will play out.
Several states have postponed their primaries amid safety concerns, and despite Trump’s stated wish for social distancing and others measures currently being followed to be done with by Easter, it is unclear if this will happen. This is especially so, if state authorities insist on keeping the measures in place.
“Even after 9/11, when New York had to briefly move its primary, the people who were physically affected – I don’t mean mentally or emotionally – when we had to move some polling stations, were only in lower Manhattan,” says Christina Greer, professor of politics at Fordham College in New York.
“If you lived in one of the other five boroughs, you went to your usual polling station. And that was New York. Now we have all 50 states affected – large cities, small town, rich people, poor people. college students.”
It is not even clear if either the Republicans or Democrats will be in a position to hold their traditional conventions.
Democrats are due to hold theirs in the middle of July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of several battleground states. Republicans are scheduled to hold theirs at the end of August in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It is possible the GOP will be able to proceed with its once-every-four-years event. But Democrats are anxiously examining possible alternatives, including delay or else a virtual forum.
“As we navigate the unprecedented challenge of responding to the coronavirus, we’re exploring a range of contingency options to ensure we can deliver a successful convention without unnecessary risk to public health,” Katie Peters, a convention spokeswoman, told the New York Times. “This is a very fluid situation — and the convention is still more than three months away.”
As things currently stand, after a landslide win in South Carolina and a strong performances on Super Tuesday and the two other days of voting since, Biden has managed to amass 1,215 delegates.
By contrast, Sanders, who won in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, only to see his momentum halted by a resurgent Biden and a Democratic establishment lightening fast to rally around him, has 910. He needs to win 60 per cent of the remaining delegates available if he is going to seize the nomination from Biden, something most think unlikely.
With up to a dozen states having postponed their primaries, the next date in the calendar to watch will be June 2, when ten states along with Washington DC will vote for a nominee.
The largest prizes on offer, in terms of delegate count, will be Ohio and New Jersey and if Sanders is to make a dramatic comeback it would have to happen then.
Many believe the Vermont senator sees little prospect of defeating Biden and remains in the race in order to put pressure on him.
This could be to try and force Biden to agree to adopt more progressive policies for the party platform, or agree to a running mate Sanders approves of, perhaps somebody such as Stacey Abrams, of Georgia.
“Barring some cataclysmic change, it’s over – and Biden is the nominee,” says Michael Fraioli, a DC-based political strategist, who has advised numerous Democrats.
“But Sanders has to be all in. Biden needs his supporters to defeat Trump. Sanders has not dropped out. And so he’s still a real candidate. And Biden’s being respectful of them. I’m sure every day they hope he’d drop out and endorse him.”
Given neither Biden or Sanders is able to engage in actual on-the-ground campaigning, the former vice president, at least, is stepping up his spending on advertising.
This week it was reported that Priorities USA, one of the major Democratic super PACs, spent $6m attacking Trump’s response to Covid-19 in adverts aired in Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Each of the four states was narrowly won by Trump in 2016 and are at the top of the Democrats’ wish-list to flip.
That will not be easy. Both Fraioli and Greer acknowledge the coronavirus crisis has provided Trump with another weapon – a daily briefing in which he gets to appear before the cameras and seek to shape the narrative.
Both say Trump risks losing his reelection bid if he messes up the federal response to the virus, either in terms of ending the social distancing measures before medical officials say it is safe, or failing to inject enough money to prop up the economy and minimise unemployment.
So far, most Americans seem to think the president is doing a good job. A poll by Gallup published this week suggested 60 per cent of Americans approve of the job he is doing to combat the coronavirus crisis, pushing his approval rating to 49 per cent, the highest of his presidency.
All of which helps accounts for the frustration felt by Biden and this supporters.
On Wednesday, he claimed he was trying new ways to break into the news cycle.
“I’m learning a lot more about how to get the message out, in terms of beyond what we’re doing,” he said “There’s still plenty of opportunity to communicate with the American people.”