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Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg participates in a march crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020. Photo by Michael A. McCoy/Reuters

Super Tuesday is Bloomberg’s big test

SELMA, Ala. (AP) — Moments before Mike Bloomberg stood in the pulpit of Brown Chapel AME Church, the pastor noted that the former New York mayor initially declined an invitation to speak at the church where, 55 years ago, civil rights activists prepared for the historic march to Montgomery. The pastor praised Bloomberg’s change of heart, but the Democratic presidential candidate struggled to win over his audience. Multiple parishioners stood and turned their backs to him.

A short time later, the church erupted in cheers when former Vice President Joe Biden — fresh off his victory in the South Carolina primary — strode into the sanctuary and sat behind the pulpit.

The contrasting responses on Sunday were a stark reminder that Bloomberg’s unprecedented investment in the presidential campaign may have little payoff if a diverse coalition of voters spurn him in the 14 states that vote Tuesday, including Alabama. The billionaire former New York mayor seemed to be aware of the high stakes he faces on Super Tuesday.

“I’ve got a primary to run and to win,” he said at the Martin and Coretta King Unity Breakfast in Selma, Alabama. “We’ll see what happens.”

Bloomberg has sought to make issues of race central to his campaign. He has acknowledged his privilege as a white man, released several criminal justice proposals and landed endorsements from prominent black elected officials, including the mayor of Washington and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He has also been frank in expressing regret for the stop-and-frisk policing program that disproportionately affected black and Latino New Yorkers during his tenure as mayor.

On Sunday, just hours after he campaigned in Selma, he won the endorsement of California state Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a black legislator who authored one of the nation’s strictest laws on when police can use deadly force.

But after Biden’s commanding win in South Carolina, which was powered by support from African Americans, Bloomberg is facing mounting pressure to justify his presence in the race. Some Democrats fear that Bloomberg will take votes on Super Tuesday that would otherwise go to Biden, making it harder for the party to unite behind a single moderate alternative to Bernie Sanders, who some in the party establishment think is too liberal to beat President Donald Trump.

“Mike Bloomberg says that Bernie Sanders can’t beat Trump, yet his presence in the race makes it much more likely that Bernie Sanders will enter the convention with the delegate lead,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a longtime aide to former President Barack Obama who recently called on Bloomberg to drop out. “Given how many delegates are at stake on Super Tuesday, particularly in California and Texas, Bloomberg could massively strengthen Sanders’ grip on the nomination next week.”

Even if Bloomberg has a poor showing on Tuesday, he’s likely to press on. His campaign hasn’t set clear expectations for victory on Tuesday, but adviser Tim O’Brien said there’s no scenario in which he exits the race due to the results. He’s already invested heavily in states that come next, including general election battleground states like Florida, where he’ll appear Tuesday night.

“It’s our first test with voters so it’s very important to us,” O’Brien said. “But we’re also in this for the long haul. There’s still a lot of the country to be heard from and we’re in 45-plus states and territories, so we’re going to be fighting it through.”

WATCH: Full interview with 2020 candidate Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg spent much of last week campaigning in a handful of Southern and Western states where his aides say they believe he could notch a win, largely because he’s the only candidate who’s been able to visit multiple times or air ads in many of them. His campaign believes he has a particular appeal to suburban Democrats — those well-educated, upper middle-class voters who may be more moderate on financial issues and may have followed his political advocacy on gun control and climate change.

Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee are the Super Tuesday states with significant black populations. Texas and California, the biggest delegate prizes, meanwhile, are each roughly 40% Latino, a group of voters Sanders has aggressively targeted. Other states that vote Tuesday, like Utah, Maine and Vermont, are heavily white, but offer low delegate hauls.

Bloomberg’s aides admit Biden’s South Carolina win makes their path tougher. But they believe the coronavirus outbreak gives Bloomberg an opportunity to make an even stronger case for his candidacy as the only proven problem-solver in the field. The campaign aired a three-minute ad Sunday night on two major networks touting his leadership in times of crisis as New York mayor, including in the aftermath of 9/11.

Bloomberg is campaigning for the presidency in the same way he ran three times for City Hall in New York: overwhelming his rivals with so much spending that it becomes hard to compete.

He’s the only candidate on air in all 14 states, and has staff on the ground in every state, including some teams that campaign leadership says are bigger than any campaign has built for a prior election.

Bloomberg has spent nearly $180 million on television advertising alone in the 14 Super Tuesday states, with more than $100 million of that spent just in California and Texas, the two biggest delegate hauls in the primary contest. That’s nearly $3 per registered voter in both states.

“I’ve just never seen anything quite as dramatic as these buys,” said Sheri Sadler, who runs a political media buying firm based in California and consulted for Tom Steyer’s nascent campaign.

While Bloomberg only campaigned in Texas in the final week before the primary and did not personally visit California, he’s purchased ads in every single media market in both states in the 10 days leading up to Super Tuesday, according to TV spending data obtained by The Associated Press. As of Saturday, when South Carolina voted, about 1.4 million California Democrats had already returned mail-in ballots. That’s roughly 20% of the ballots that went out.

Someone in San Diego, the state’s second-largest city and a former Republican stronghold that’s seen its politics shift over the last decade, could see a Bloomberg ad as many as 40 times in that window. In North Carolina, some TV viewers in the northeastern corner of the state may have seen Bloomberg ads as many as 180 times since he entered the race and began spending money there.

He’s even spending big in the home states of rivals Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, at more than $9 million in Massachusetts and nearly $8 million in Minnesota.

The ads are just one piece of Bloomberg’s unmatched campaign spending. Attendees get free T-shirts at every Bloomberg event, with one of his general campaign slogans including “I Like Mike,” or specialized T-shirts for whatever state the event is in. Nearly every event has specialized signage and a backdrop themed to the city the event is in; a massive sign with Nashville’s city skyline outlined in red framed Bloomberg as he spoke to voters in a concert venue in mid-February. They’re treated to catered buffets ranging from cheese plates and small sandwiches to mini quiches to barbecue.

For Cookie Arthur Smith, an undecided voter at a Bloomberg event in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Saturday, that was enough to pique her interest.

“I think he’s a rough and tough businessman who really has made money on his own and not coasted along on his daddy’s coattails,” she said. “And, my God, he gave us this free barbecue. What’s not to like?”

Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Selma, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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