Top Democrat signals Sanders needs majority to claim nomination

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, says her party's 2020 presidential nominee should be the candidate who wins "a majority plus one" of delegates to the Democratic convention (AFP Photo/MARK WILSON)

Washington (AFP) - US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday signaled to Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders that he would need an outright majority of delegates, not just a plurality, to win the party's presidential nomination.

Washington's top Democrat declined to say whether she would support the candidacy of Sanders -- flagbearer for the left-wing -- if he arrived at the party convention in July with the most delegates among the candidates, but still short of a majority.

"The person who will be nominated will be the person who has a majority plus one. That may happen before they even get to the convention but we'll see," Pelosi told reporters.

Sanders is battling moderate rivals including former vice president Joe Biden and rising challenger Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, to see who faces President Donald Trump in November's election.

Pelosi dodged answering whether she would advise her members to back the leading candidate if that person arrived at the convention with only a plurality of delegates.

"The rules are very clear: the person who will be nominated for president will be the person who will have the majority of the votes," Pelosi said.

Sanders is ahead in the early delegate count and the leftist firebrand senator could take a commanding lead after "Super Tuesday" next week, when 14 states cast their ballots.

They include the most populous state California, where Sanders has a significant advantage in polls.

Democratic Party leaders, many of whom see Sanders as a flawed candidate who would lose to Trump in the general election, are loath to hand the nomination to Sanders if he leads the delegate race but falls short of a majority.

The New York Times reported that interviews with more than 90 party establishment leaders show they are eager to prevent his ascendancy.

The leaders are among the 500-plus superdelegates -- including congressmen and state officials -- who would be eligible to cast votes at the convention if no candidate clinches a majority.

Under new rules approved after the 2016 race, the nominee must have a majority of delegates, and superdelegates are only allowed to cast decisive votes should no clear winner emerge after the first ballot.

Sanders has argued that whoever is ahead in delegates by convention time "should become the nominee." The other candidates call for the party to play by its rules.

Pelosi did not openly praise or criticize Sanders. But "whoever the nominee is will have our wholehearted support," she said. "Our gospel is one of unity, unity, unity."

Her comments come two days before South Carolina's primary, the fourth contest in the race and the first with a large black electorate.

Biden is on track to win the state, which he says would mark his comeback after three dismal showings in early states.