WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ohio will seek to postpone Tuesday’s presidential nominating contest, its governor said on Monday, making it the first of four states that had been scheduled to hold Democratic primaries that day despite growing concerns about the coronavirus.
Officials in Ohio, Illinois, Florida and Arizona had previously said they would still move forward on Tuesday. But Ohio Governor Mike DeWine became the first to call for delaying the election, saying that at-risk populations would be unable to vote.
The rapidly spreading virus has shut down schools, restaurants and sporting and cultural events. Georgia and Louisiana have already postponed primaries that had been set for March 24 and April 4, respectively.
On Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended cancellation of gatherings of 50 or more over the next eight weeks.
DeWine lacks the power to unilaterally delay the primary, but will ask a state court to rule in favor of a planned lawsuit seeking the postponement.
Former Vice President Joe Biden was the overwhelming favorite to best U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in all four states, according to public opinion polls.
The primaries in the populous states of Florida, Illinois and Ohio, as well as Arizona, have the potential to give Biden a nearly unassailable lead over Sanders, his only viable rival and a self-styled democratic socialist.
Following his first one-on-one debate with Biden at CNN’s Washington bureau on Sunday – which had no studio audience to limit possible exposure to the virus, Sanders questioned the wisdom of voting two days later.
“I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts,” Sanders said in an interview with CNN after his one-on-one debate with Biden.
“I’m thinking about some of the elderly people who are sitting behind the desks, registering people, doing all that stuff. Does that make a lot of sense? Not sure that it does.”
Prominent leaders and groups in the Democratic Party have been coalescing around Biden. On Monday, he picked up endorsements from Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and from the International Longshoremen’s Association, a large maritime workers’ union based in New Jersey.
The outbreak has dramatically upended normal presidential campaign routines, forcing both remaining candidates off the road. Both Biden and Sanders plan to hold “virtual” campaign events on Monday in an effort to reach voters.
Biden will hold a tele-town hall meeting with voters in all four states on Monday, his campaign said, while Sanders planned a “digital rally” livestream broadcast featuring musician Neil Young and actress Daryl Hannah.
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