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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden looks on Tuesday during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden looks on Tuesday during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

As of this writing, the Democratic presidential contest looks very fluid, with four candidates bunched up in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the sudden relevance of foreign policy, thanks to the confrontation with Iran, has made it look more and more like a two-person race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Both candidates think the issue helps them, and they’re probably right. Mr. Biden’s foreign policy experience and comparative hawkishness reinforce support from moderate voters, and Mr. Sanders’ long record of dovishness helps him among more progressive voters. Both candidates are trying to use the issue to freeze out their nearest competitors, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren.

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If it does become a two-way contest, we could be shaping up for a kind of replay of the 2004 Democratic battle between former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. And that might be good for Michael Bloomberg.

Mr. Biden’s ace in the hole is his support from African American voters, which hinges on their belief that Mr. Biden is the most likely candidate to defeat President Trump. A new Washington Post-Ipsos poll has Mr. Biden capturing 48% of black votes, and 57% of black voters say the thing they’re looking for most in a candidate is the ability to beat Mr, Trump. Only a third say their main consideration is how closely a candidate aligns with them on the issues. These “issues” voters skew younger, which might partially explain why Mr. Sanders comes in second among black voters with 20%.

The whole dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of the 2004 primaries. Mr. Kerry was the establishment candidate, Mr. Dean was the firebrand outsider with a lot of support from young progressives.

It’s largely forgotten now, but Mr. Kerry won the early contests not because voters liked him best, but because they thought other voters would prefer him down the road.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Kerry won by 12 points. He beat Mr. Dean 4-to-1 among voters whose top motivation was selecting a candidate who could “defeat George W. Bush in November.” Both candidates were even among voters who picked their choice because “he agrees with you on the major issues.” And Mr. Kerry’s early successes helped fuel the electability argument in later contests.

The prevailing logic of the “dated Dean, married Kerry” voters was that given the war in Iraq and the war on terror generally, Mr. Kerry’s status as a decorated veteran would nullify Mr. Bush’s advantage as a wartime president. That’s why Mr. Kerry showed up at the Democratic National Convention announcing he was “reporting for duty” with a smart salute. Of course, his military record later came under scrutiny, as did his antiwar activism, both of which undercut the advantage voters assumed his war record would give him.

Mr. Biden is positioned somewhat differently from Mr. Kerry — he’s more likable, if wackier, for starters. And Mr. Sanders has a much more robust organization than Mr. Dean had. But the similarities are real. It raises an interesting question: What if voters at the time had a better understanding of Mr. Kerry’s weaknesses as a “war hero” candidate — the main rationale for his electability claims?

Clearly, the White House (the real Trump campaign headquarters) is trying to test the question by muddying up Mr. Biden before the first primary votes are even cast. So far it’s not working very well.

But what if Mr. Biden stumbles?

The problem with campaigning on electability is that it’s a brittle rationale for a candidacy. Mr. Sanders had a heart attack, yet he’s gained support since then. It’s hard to imagine Mr. Biden’s candidacy surviving a similar setback or a major stumble. If Mr. Biden loses in Iowa and New Hampshire — a very real possibility — will pragmatic voters, including the firewall of black voters, stand by him?

If they don’t, that would be billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s opportunity. Mr. Sanders’ support is deep, but it isn’t wide. Many Democratic insiders and voters believe that the avowed socialist would lose to Mr. Trump. Whether that’s true matters less than the belief. Bloomberg’s “break glass in case of emergency” candidacy could do surprisingly well on Super Tuesday.

Of course, it’s not obvious that Mr. Bloomberg could seize the nomination or beat Mr. Trump. Having Mr. Sanders’ socialist dreams dashed by one of the very plutocrats he detests could divide the Democrats and help fuel the Democratic nightmare of a brokered convention. But for those of us with no favorites in this race, it would be fun to watch.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch.

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