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U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns in Denver outside of the Fillmore Auditorium on Feb. 23, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Bernie Sanders’ campaign surge puts new emphasis on Colorado’s presidential primary next week, making the state a proving ground for other Democratic candidates challenging the narrative that Sanders is unstoppable.

Colorado’s small delegate count relative to other Super Tuesday states, like Texas and California, means it’s not the top prize on March 3, but it could give the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg much-needed power to push back against calls for them to exit the race.

All three recently visited the state and have been taking aim at Sanders as they look to contrast themselves with the candidate seen as the frontrunner nationally and in Colorado.

Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was bullish when asked by a reporter after her Denver rally on Sunday about why she’s still in the race despite disappointing finishes in the first three states. She pointed to the enthusiasm and attendance at her Colorado event as proof that she shouldn’t be counted out.

“I’ve had two overflow crowds just in the last two places we’ve gone,” she said. “Thousands and thousands of people who’ve shown up to say ‘I am in this fight all the way.’”

Voter guide: Where the Democratic presidential candidates stand on Colorado issues

Colorado is one of 14 states that hold presidential primaries on Super Tuesday, which comes just days after South Carolina’s vote on Saturday. And it’s clear that other candidates are hoping to make a splash.

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was in Aurora on Saturday night — just hours after Sanders easily won the Nevada caucuses — blasting the Vermont senator as being divisive and too extreme. Warren launched a $300,000 television ad buy in Colorado last week and told her packed crowd at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium on Sunday how different she is from Sanders. And Klobuchar, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, hired six staffers, has launched a television and digital ad buy, and held a rally in Aurora on Thursday in a last-minute push for her pragmatic style of politics. 

Pete Buttigieg at a campaign rally in Aurora on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. He attacked Bernie Sanders in his speech at the Crowne Plaza hotel. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The recent attention from the trio’s campaigns comes late in the game and in the shadow of Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who has already spent millions in Colorado. He, too, is trying to notch a victory in Colorado that can propel his campaign forward. 

“This could be a place where a candidate like Klobuchar, Buttigieg or Warren will try to put enough resources in to win some delegates,” said Craig Hughes, a Democratic strategist who worked on U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s failed presidential campaign

Colorado will award 67 delegates from the Super Tuesday vote. To be viable, the candidates must reach 15% support statewide to win at-large delegates. The same threshold applies to the vote in each congressional district, where candidates can win additional delegates. The delegates are distributed proportionally based on the popular vote at each level. 

Because of the way Colorado’s system works, multiple candidates might be able to claim victory and pick up delegates, making the state more attractive to lagging campaigns.

A supporter waits for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to take the stage during a rally at the Colorado Convention Center on Feb. 16, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Also making Colorado a good place for those candidates, who are being forced to make tough financial decisions in the home stretch, is that their money would likely be better spent in the state because it has more impact. Colorado’s three television markets — Denver, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction — are easier to compete in for cash-poorer campaigns as compared to more populous places, like California. 

“The other key to Colorado is it’s a relatively inexpensive state,” Hughes said.

Bloomberg’s late-to-the-game campaign — he entered too late to compete in the first three states — is taking advantage of the economic opportunity presented by Colorado. He has spent nearly $6 million on television ads in Colorado.

MORE: Bernie Sanders sees Bloomberg as a threat in Colorado’s presidential primary — and a perfect foil

The “how I’m different from Bernie” argument

Not long after Buttigieg took the stage Saturday night at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Aurora, he began attacking Sanders and warning about what it would mean for the nation if he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee. 

“We’ve got a decision to make,” Buttigieg told a crowd of thousands packed into a ballroom. 

“We’re just a few votes away from Sen. Sanders — whom I respect and whose ideals we share, but who has a very different approach — getting an insurmountable lead. I am here to make the case for a politics that invites everyone instead of saying ‘it’s my way or the highway.’”

Buttigieg also said he’s the best candidate for Democrats to choose to help ensure the party keeps control of the U.S. House and wins back the U.S. Senate. 

Even Warren sought to make a clear split from Sanders in her Denver appearance. She pointed to rules in the U.S. Senate as an example of where they disagree. 

“People ask about the difference between Bernie and me, because there are a lot of places where we agree about the things we want to fight for,” she said. “But here’s a big diff(erence): Bernie supports the filibuster. I want to get rid of the filibuster because I want to get something done.”  

Supporters cheer on presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren as she speaks to a crowd of over 4,000 people at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver on Feb. 23, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Warren also emphasized during her rally that she’s not a democratic socialist like Sanders, telling a supporter who asked a question about the label and how it might drive away moderate Democrats that “you’re asking the wrong candidate.”

Finally, she also sold herself as the candidate who knows Democrats need to win back the Senate to accomplish the big change her campaign is pushing for, referencing Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s 2020 reelection bid and the need to unseat him. “I’m looking at you, Colorado,” Warren said. 

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat who is one of Warren’s top supporters in the state and introduced her at Sunday’s rally, rejected the idea that the primary race is settled. But she acknowledged in an interview Sunday afternoon that Colorado’s vote next week will be critical for Warren and others trying to break through. “Super Tuesday is going to be a turning point,” she said.

Kobuchar’s campaign on Monday sent a memo to reporters showing her path to victory on Super Tuesday. “This is a campaign that believes in underdogs,” Klobuchar said in North Dakota, according to The New York Times. And over the weekend she drew clear distinctions between herself and Sanders on health care and education.

U.S Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat running in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, greets voters after an event in northeast Denver on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“He kind of reminds me of Trump”

The indecision of many Colorado voters gives the other candidates hope.

Several voters with whom The Colorado Sun spoke at the Warren and Buttigieg rallies said they hadn’t made up their minds yet, and they are worried about Sanders being the Democratic nominee and how that might hand Trump another term, even if they do like Sanders’ policies. 

“I think I’d like Bernie a lot more if it weren’t for the general election,” Jim Hopkins, a Denver Democratic voter, said at Warren’s rally. “If the whole United States was nothing but Democrats, I think he’d be great. I’m just worried what would happen when the (general) election comes up and people are scared of democratic socialism.”

Hopkins said he hasn’t cast his ballot yet, but he’s leaning toward either Warren or Bloomberg.

Pam Gunn, a 57-year-old registered nurse from Lakewood who is a liberal-leaning unaffiliated voter,  let out an “ugh” when asked about Sanders at Buttigieg’s rally. 

“I didn’t like him last time, and he kind of reminds me of Trump,” she said. “He’s kind of yelling and screaming.”

Gunn said she hasn’t filled out her ballot and she attended the Buttigieg event hoping it would help her make her decision. She’s leaning toward Buttigieg, but she also likes Warren.

Bernie Sanders with his wife, Jane, at a Denver rally at the Colorado Convention Center on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gunn was standing with Robin Bryant, a 60-year-old Democratic voter from Longmont. She, too, has not filled out her ballot, though is leaning toward Buttigieg. 

As for Sanders? “I think what he wants to do is not entirely possible,” she said. “I think he’s unrealistic because you can’t give everything for free.”

Sanders remained confident over the weekend about his momentum, declaring his movement is “going to sweep this country.”

His Feb. 16 rally drew more than 10,000 people, according to his campaign, only slightly fewer than the combined attendance of the weekend Warren and Buttigieg events.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....