Washington (AFP) - Bernie Sanders was talking to advisers on Wednesday as pressure mounted on the leftist Vermont senator to end his White House campaign following a drubbing by Joe Biden in the latest Democratic primaries.
As the coronavirus outbreak played havoc with the primary schedule, calls grew among Democrats for Sanders to bow out to allow the centrist Biden to focus on beating President Donald Trump in November.
Biden, 77, trounced Sanders, 78, in the three states which went to the polls on Tuesday -- Arizona, Florida and Illinois -- to build up an all-but impregnable lead in the number of delegates needed to head the Democratic ticket.
"The race for the nomination is over," said Democratic strategist David Axelrod, who ran Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns. "That is the reality Bernie Sanders faces."
While his hopes of winning the nomination may look increasingly dim, the senator strongly denied press reports that he was dropping out.
"Anybody who suggests that at this point we are ending the campaign is not telling the truth," Sanders told CNN.
Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir did say, however, that the candidate was holding talks to "assess" the future.
"The next primary contest is at least three weeks away," Shakir said in a statement. "Senator Sanders is going to be having conversations with supporters to assess his campaign.
"In the immediate term, however, he is focused on the government response to the coronavirus outbreak."
Several states have postponed primaries because of the pandemic and both candidates have been forced to halt public rallies and turn to virtual campaigning.
Biden trounced Sanders in each of Tuesday's battlegrounds, taking 62 percent of the vote in Florida against 23 percent for Sanders and winning by 59 percent to 36 percent in Illinois.
In Arizona, Biden had nearly 44 percent to Sanders' nearly 32 percent.
Voters had also been scheduled to go to the polls in Ohio but the governor of the midwestern state postponed the election, citing the coronavirus outbreak.
- 'I think it is time' -
The surging Biden has now won 19 of the 27 state contests held so far.
The victories underscored his position as the clear frontrunner and the eagerness of Democratic leaders and party rank and file to come together around a moderate standardbearer to challenge Trump.
According to a count by RealClearPolitics, Biden has racked up 1,153 delegates to Sanders' 874, with 1,991 needed to capture the nomination.
Given Biden's substantial lead in opinion polls in many of the states yet to hold primaries, Sanders faces an uphill battle.
Former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri urged him to drop out.
"I think it is time," McCaskill told MSNBC. "Bernie's going to have plenty of delegates and power to influence the platform," she said of the policies to be declared at the party's July convention.
Biden said he was closer to securing the nomination and was building "a broad coalition" that the party requires to defeat Trump.
"The next president will have to salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilize our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges -- like future pandemics. We need a leader who will be ready on day one," he said in a tweet Wednesday.
- Trump taunt -
From the White House, Trump taunted the Democrats, repeating his accusation that the party elite sabotaged Sanders -- whom the president's own campaign views as the weaker potential opponent.
The Democratic National Committee "will have gotten their fondest wish and defeated Bernie Sanders, far ahead of schedule," Trump tweeted.
"Now they are doing everything possible to be nice to him in order to keep his supporters. Bernie has given up, just like he did last time. He will be dropping out soon!" Trump said, referring to Sanders's failed fight for the nomination in 2016.
Trump also appeared to be attempting to rile up Sanders' supporters, whose willingness to transfer their support to Biden could be crucial in the November contest.
Biden for his part has experienced an astonishing change of fortune -- his campaign was left for dead just one month ago after poor showings in early voting states.
Sanders meanwhile has struggled against perceptions that he is too far left to defeat Trump.
He admitted as much last week when he said Democratic voters have told him they back his agenda of health care for all and battling income inequality, but they were voting for Biden because he has a better chance of winning back the White House.