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The Path Forward For Bernie Sanders Following His Heart Attack

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had to take a break from the campaign trail because of a heart attack. But after this week's debate, Sanders is back, and strategists say don't count him out.

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Bernie Sanders returned to the presidential race this week after a recent heart attack, and the Vermont senator is looking to prove voters worried about his health wrong after a dip in the polls. A strong debate performance plus an infusion of campaign cash and a couple of key endorsements have his campaign looking up. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: In the last Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders quickly tried to quash any lingering questions about his heart attack.

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BERNIE SANDERS: I'm healthy. I'm feeling great. But I would like to respond to that question.

KHALID: Sanders is not the first presidential candidate in history to have had a heart attack. Dwight Eisenhower had one a year before he was reelected. But Sanders has been scrutinized for his age, and the moderators on the debate stage would not let that issue go.

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ERIN BURNETT: You're 78 years old, and you just had a heart attack. How do you reassure Democratic voters that you're up to the stress of the presidency?

SANDERS: Well, let me invite you all to a major rally we're having in Queens, New York - berniesanders.com. We're going to have a special guest at that event.

KHALID: That special guest Sanders was referring to is freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The progressive star endorsed Sanders this week, along with a fellow member of the so-called squad, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The endorsements were huge for Sanders, and they counter the Bernie-bro narrative of his 2016 campaign. They also came on the heels of new fundraising numbers that showed Sanders had more cash on hand than any of his Democratic opponents.

KAREN FINNEY: If history is any guide, don't count Senator Sanders out. He is someone, I think, who will be with us in this campaign for quite a while.

KHALID: Karen Finney is a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

FINNEY: We know that he's got a loyal, strong base of support. And the question will be, can he regain some of the momentum in the polling?

KHALID: Even before his heart attack, Sanders' poll numbers had begun dropping, and the conventional wisdom was that the Democratic primary was essentially winnowing down to a two-person contest between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Faiz Shakir is Sanders' campaign manager.

FAIZ SHAKIR: In the professional pundit class, in the elite media circles, there has been a strong effort to discount Bernie Sanders. I mean, it's just like, oh, the movement is over. He can't succeed. He doesn't have opportunities to grow. It's going to end for him.

KHALID: But Shakir contends this week proves the pundits wrong. Mark Longabaugh is a Democratic consultant. He worked on Sanders' campaign in 2016.

MARK LONGABAUGH: Just in a technical sense, he came into this race - remember - with by far the largest fundraising list of any of the candidates. And that was underestimated by a lot of people, I think. You know, he had over 2 million-some people on his list.

KHALID: Longabaugh also says Sanders' resiliency goes back to consistency, especially on one issue.

LONGABAUGH: The "Medicare for All" message has been sort of his bread and butter, and I think that is still a powerful issue at the grassroots.

KHALID: Shakir says voters fundamentally trust Sanders.

SHAKIR: You just trust that this is somebody who has a lifetime of consistency and that when he gets in the Oval Office and he says he's going to fight for Medicare for All, he's going to fight for Medicare for All.

KHALID: That last line from Shakir could be interpreted as a swipe at Warren, who has not been as clear in her support for Medicare for All and how she would pay for it. Sanders has been hesitant to go after Warren, but that could soon change. Strategists agree that Sanders needs to figure out how to blunt Warren's momentum because time is running out before the all-important early states start voting. I asked Shakir what Sanders' path to victory looks like.

SHAKIR: The path for Bernie Sanders to win this nomination is arguably the hardest and most ambitious path of any candidate.

KHALID: Why? Well, because the Sanders campaign needs to massively increase voter turnout. Sanders' base of support, after all, is young and lower-income people, people who usually vote at far lower rates than older and wealthier voters.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODY'S ECHO CHAMBER'S "SOME TIME ALONE, ALONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.