LAS VEGAS • Former United States vice-president Joe Biden has taken aim at his rival, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, calling on him to condemn the "vicious, malicious, misogynistic" rhetoric of some of Mr Sanders' supporters and to do more to stamp it out.
The remarks on Saturday came at a key time for both campaigns, as Mr Biden tries to regain his footing after weak showings in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary - in which Mr Sanders surged towards the front of the Democratic pack - and a week before Saturday's key Nevada caucuses.
The zeal of Mr Sanders' online base has been both a source of strength and perpetual aggravation for his campaign, which has delicately balanced condemning bullying without diluting the force of his most fervent followers.
Mr Biden's comments on Saturday specifically seized on attacks that Mr Sanders' supporters made against officials at the powerful Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, after that union had criticised Mr Sanders' healthcare plan.
"If any of my supporters did that, I'd disown them," Mr Biden said, as part of an interview with Meet the Press, which aired yesterday on NBC.
"To say 'I disassociate' is one thing. Find out who the hell they are, if any of them work for me. Fire them. Find out. See what's going on."
Asked about Mr Biden's comments, a spokesman for Mr Sanders, Mr Mike Casca, said that Mr Sanders "continues to be unequivocal on the issue", pointing to remarks that the senator had made earlier last week.
"Anybody making personal attacks against anybody else in my name is not part of our movement," Mr Sanders had said. "And I'm not so sure, to be honest with you, that they are necessarily part of our movement. You understand, you know, the nature of the Internet."
Mr Sanders went on an offensive of his own Saturday night. At a Clark County Democratic Party dinner at the Tropicana Las Vegas, he spoke first among all the candidates and devoted a sizeable portion of his remarks to attacking an opponent who was not present: Mr Michael Bloomberg.
Mr Sanders denounced "racist policies like stop-and-frisk", a reference to the policing tactics under Mr Bloomberg when he was mayor of New York City, which have been criticised for disproportionately affecting minorities and for which Mr Bloomberg has apologised.
CAUSE TO DISOWN
If any of my supporters did that, I'd disown them.
FORMER US VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN, commenting on attacks that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' supporters had made against officials at the Culinary Workers Union.
NOT PART OF MOVEMENT
Anybody making personal attacks against anybody else in my name is not part of our movement.
MR BERNIE SANDERS
Mr Sanders also criticised Mr Bloomberg as "a candidate who opposed modest proposals during Mr Barack Obama's presidency to raise taxes on the wealthy while advocating for cuts to Medicare and social security".
He concluded: "The simple truth is that (former) mayor Bloomberg with all his money will not create the kind of excitement and energy we need to have the voter turnout we must have to defeat (US President) Donald Trump."
The barbs came as early voting for Nevada's Democratic caucuses began on Saturday, with most of the leading candidates rallying supporters amid lingering concerns about whether Nevada would be able to avoid a repeat of the caucus fiasco in Iowa.
As Mr Sanders addressed a crowd in a high school cafeteria on Saturday morning, his supporters were sharply focused on the process as well as on Mr Sanders and his opponents.
Numerous people expressed concern about the logistics of a caucus in which they want to deliver a speedy and unequivocal victory to their candidate.
"I went to a training last week, and there are lots of concerns among the campaign - 'How's it actually going to work?' " said Mr Paul Kleemann, a precinct captain volunteer for the Sanders campaign who teaches high school guitar in Las Vegas.
"We were supposed to use the same app as Iowa, but they scrapped that, and as of Wednesday, they hadn't released how they were going to get the early caucus results to the precincts."
He added: "It's a little frightening at this point."
Still, the concerns about the process did not distract from the high stakes for the candidates.
The burst of campaigning in Nevada signalled a new phase in the primary race, after the Iowa caucuses on Feb 3 and the New Hampshire primary last Tuesday.
The candidates have now plunged into a pivotal and chaotic portion of the calendar, with critical contests coming up in Nevada and South Carolina, and a slew of contests looming on Super Tuesday on March 3.