The Note: Fear of 'insurmountable' Sanders lead influences in Nevada and beyond

Sen. Bernie Sanders seems virtually assured of opening a delegate lead.

The TAKE with Rick Klein

As of Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders is not the national delegate leader in the Democratic nomination race. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg is, despite losing the popular vote in both states that have already -- mostly -- counted votes.

That seems likely to change -- and fast. Saturday's Nevada caucuses start a 10-day campaign stretch where Sanders seems virtually assured of opening a delegate lead, a lead that a growing number of anxious Democrats fear he may never surrender.

Ask the Buttigieg campaign.

"If the dynamics of the race did not dramatically change, Democrats could end up coming out of Super Tuesday with Bernie Sanders holding a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead," the campaign wrote in a memo released Thursday.

Or ask former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's campaign.

"As the race stands today, Sanders is poised to leave Super Tuesday with an over-400 delegate lead versus his next closest competitor … a likely insurmountable advantage," campaign manager Kevin Sheekey wrote in a memo this week.

Perhaps another surge from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar can blunt Sanders' momentum this weekend and beyond. Maybe former Vice President Joe Biden's last stand in South Carolina pays off or Bloomberg's big buys will keep Sanders' numbers down.

"We're just getting started," Warren told ABC News' Senior Congressional Correspondent Mary Bruce on Thursday.

But the campaign is far further along than voting results suggest, and would be no matter who underperformed at Wednesday's debate. With a big chunk of early votes already banked in Nevada, and California early voting already well underway, it may already be too late to bank on a whole new race.

The Nevada caucuses

  • Caucuses begin at noon (PST)
  • What's at stake? 36 delegates
  • Watch ABC News Live for coverage and analysis.
  • The RUNDOWN with MaryAlice Parks

    The race for second again feels most interesting going into the weekend in Nevada.

    Sanders' team feels confident they could secure a second clean win here.

    But even if he does, a crowded field means he stands almost no chance of breaking 50% of the vote. He will be lucky if he breaks 30.

    So with a majority of the voters still fractured among the rest of the candidates, the number two spot takes on extra significance.

    Warren's surrogates want her debate performance to keep her top of mind for voters going into Super Tuesday. They said they would be closely examining any difference between the early vote results in Nevada that came in midweek and the results that come on Saturday, to see if she did in fact get a bump that they can spin and sell.

    No one clearing a majority in these early states has made a contested convention increasingly likely. That means the most impactful part of Wednesday's debate might have been what happened when Sanders said that whoever walks into the convention in the lead should walk out the winner.

    The TIP with Cheyenne Haslett

    For more than a year, Warren has told voters to follow the money. From PAC money, to lobbyist money, to paid-for experts -- every issue voters care about has been influenced by money, she often tells her crowds on the trail. But as her opponents surged past her in the national polls in recent weeks, all aided either by super PAC support or their own bank accounts, Warren's message changed: if you can't beat them, join them.

    "So here's where I stand, if all of the candidates want to get rid of super PACs, count me in. I'll lead the charge. But that's how it has to be. It can't be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don't," Warren said, a day after a new super PAC called "Persist" launched $800,000 of pro-Warren ads in Nevada.

    Warren maintains that she hasn't changed her stance. If all candidates disavow super PAC support, as she has repeatedly called on her fellow Democrats to do, she will too, she said. But until then, she has not indicated she will reject the boost.

    Meanwhile, her public record reflects the vigor with which Warren has led her campaign on an anti-PAC message -- criticizing Biden for reversing his opposition to PACs when his opponents surpassed him in grassroots fundraising and pledging on her own website that she would disavow any super PAC that formed to support her in the primary.

    ONE MORE THING

    To hear two men affirm their love for one another so openly in a presidential campaign is groundbreaking and historic. Pete Buttigieg is the first major openly gay candidate to launch a bid for the presidency, and with voting underway, he's currently leading the Democratic field in delegates. His husband Chasten Buttigieg sat down with ABC News Correspondent Linsey Davis to respond to critics and discuss the historic nature of the campaign as part of the "Running Mates" series.

    THE PLAYLIST

    ABC News' "Start Here" Podcast. Friday morning's episode features ABC News Chief Legal Analyst Dan Abrams, who describes what went down in the courtroom Thursday as Roger Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison. Then, Galen Druke from our partners at FiveThirtyEight gets us ready for the Saturday's Nevada caucuses. http://apple.co/2HPocUL

    WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS WEEKEND

  • President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas at noon (PST). He travels back to Washington in the evening.
  • Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks at 11:30 a.m. (PST) Friday at a Keep America Great Rally in Las Vegas.
  • Tom Steyer takes a tour of the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas at 9 a.m. (PST) on Friday. He then participates in a policy call with the Black Economic Alliance at 1 p.m. (EST). Later, he participates in a meet-and-greet event at 6:10 p.m. (PST) and then hosts a rally at 6:30 p.m. in Las Vegas. Later, he delivers remarks at a town hall in Las Vegas at 8:45 p.m. On Saturday, he attends a "Caucus Day Celebration" at 1 p.m. in Las Vegas on Saturday.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., holds a press conference at 10:30 a.m. (PST) in Santa Ana, California, on Friday. He then leads a rally at 11:30 a.m. in Santa Ana, California. Later, he holds a rally at 3:30 p.m. in Bakersfield, California. He also hosts a rally at 7 p.m. in Las Vegas. On Saturday, he's in Texas where he leads a rally at 2 p.m. (MST) in El Paso, Texas. He then hosts a rally in San Antonio at 7 p.m. (CST). On Sunday, he hosts rallies in Houston and Austin at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. (CST) respectively.
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, participates in a forum with University of Utah students at 1:30 p.m. (MST) in Salt Lake City on Friday. She then hosts a town hall in Salt Lake City at 6:30 p.m. On Saturday, she leads a town hall at 4 p.m. in Provo, Utah. On Sunday, she participates in "Snowboarding with Tulsi" at noon in Snowbird, Utah.
  • Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, leads a roundtable with Nevada Environmental Activists and Native American Leaders at 1:30 p.m. (PST) in Las Vegas on Friday. He then leads a rally in Las Vegas at 6:45 p.m. On Saturday, he hosts a town hall in Aurora, Colorado, at 7 p.m. (MST).
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., hosts a rally at 2 p.m. (PST) in Elko, Nevada, on Friday. Later, she leads a rally at 5:45 p.m. (PST) in Reno, Nevada.
  • Buttigieg and Steyer attend a American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) pre-caucus event at 6 p.m. in Las Vegas on Friday.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., holds a town hall with Julián Castro in Las Vegas at 6:15 p.m. (PST) on Friday. On Saturday, she hosts a campaign event at 4:30 p.m. in Seattle on Saturday. On Sunday, she holds a campaign event at 1:30 p.m. (MST) in Denver.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden hosts a community event in Las Vegas at 6:30 p.m. (PST) on Friday. On Saturday, he then holds a caucus day event at 3 p.m. in Las Vegas.
  • The Nevada State Democratic Party holds precinct caucuses on Saturday.
  • Sunday on ABC's "This Week": The Powerhouse Roundtable discusses the week in politics, former New Jersey Governor and ABC News Contributor Chris Christie, former Chicago Mayor and ABC News Contributor Rahm Emanuel, Republican strategist and ABC News Contributor Sara Fagen and Democracy for America CEO and ABC News Contributor Yvette Simpson.
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    The Note is a daily ABC News feature that highlights the key political moments of the day ahead. Please check back Monday for the latest.