WASHINGTON — The Democratic Party establishment — what's left of it, anyway — is hoping someone can stop Bernie Sanders and his progressive horde from capturing the party's presidential nomination.
"I don't know how you win an election (at) 78 years old, screaming in a microphone about the revolution," said James Carville, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, in an especially pungent expression of the old guard's anxiety. "It's like we're losing our damn minds."
But Carville and other party elders have two problems as they look for a way to influence the race: They haven't agreed on which non-Bernie candidate to favor. And even if they did, it's not clear how many voters would listen.
Sanders has a strong shot at winning for an old-fashioned reason: Even though he's not the first choice of most Democrats, he's won more votes than any other candidate.
In Iowa, he essentially tied for first place with Pete Buttigieg. In New Hampshire, he narrowly defeated the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
If non-Bernie voters continue to scatter their choices, Sanders will consolidate his hold on first place, even if he only wins about a quarter of the votes, which is what he got in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Again, most Democratic voters aren't Sanders fans or socialists. A CBS News study found a three-way ideological divide: about one third described themselves as "very liberal," which is Sanders' base; another third said they were "somewhat liberal," and the last third called themselves "moderate" or "conservative." In other words, die-hard progressives are a minority.
So Democratic leaders who are not Sanderistas are hoping Saturday's Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary a week later will produce a clear surge for one of the candidates they consider more electable: Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden.
Klobuchar, who finished a surprising third in New Hampshire, has emerged as their hope-of-the-week: more experienced than Buttigieg, a better campaigner than the flagging Biden.
But Klobuchar is still unproven.
A lot may hang on whether she performs as well at the next debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday.
That may also be the first debate to include Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who has spent more than $200 million to elbow his way into the competition.
Bloomberg will be on ballots beginning on March 3 — Super Tuesday — when 14 states including California hold primaries that will choose more than a third of the elected delegates to the Democrats' convention.
Party leaders are reluctant to intervene in a way that would alienate Sanders supporters, since their votes will be crucial in November even if he's not the nominee.
"They seem to know they don't want Sanders, but they can't do much about it," said Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University who studies the role of parties in the nominating process.
There is one scenario under which party leaders could exert some influence: delegate-swapping.
If no one amasses a majority of delegates during the primaries, several candidates could try to cut bargains before the Democratic convention in Milwaukee in mid-July.
For example, a candidate in third or fourth place could drop out and release his or her delegates, which would free them to vote for anyone else.
If there's no winner on the first ballot, the party's "superdelegates" — mostly elected officials and party activists — get to join in later voting. The DNC adopted those rules in 2018 in a compromise that Sanders approved.
So the establishment might make its voice heard after all.
But those hypothetical plot twists are months away. Until then, the choice is out of the establishment's control and up to the voters. Like it or not, the Democrats are going to have to solve their problem through democracy.
The Los Angeles Times