WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. Bernie Sanders is embarking on a nine-state battleground tour on behalf of Democratic candidates competing in the November elections, returning to the campaign trail ahead of a decision on another White House bid.
The packed October schedule marks the Vermont independent's most extensive stretch of campaigning since the 2016 presidential race. It will include stops in Iowa and South Carolina, home to crucial early contests on the 2020 primary calendar.
Sanders is expected to make a decision on whether to launch another campaign in the coming months and the tour could inform his decision. It will allow him to test the durability of the left-leaning coalition he assembled in 2016 and build relationships with elected officials who could serve as allies should he run again.
"He wanted to go where he thinks he can be helpful in energizing the base and bringing in young people and independent voters and working-class voters who supported him," said Jeff Weaver, Sanders' 2016 campaign manager and longtime political adviser.
Weaver said Sanders had "no timeline or deadline" for making a decision on 2020 but much of his consideration was focused on who is best able to defeat President Donald Trump. "His message has reached across the Democratic base and positions him well were he to decide to run in the primary but also in the general election as the candidate who can best beat Trump," he said.
Sanders' challenge to Hillary Clinton made him the main alternative in the 2016 Democratic primaries, but the next presidential campaign is expected to be a wide-open contest that could include several senators such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, plus former Vice President Joe Biden, other members of Congress, governors and mayors.
Sanders has been at the center of a debate over the party's future and whether his agenda of free college tuition, a $15 hourly minimum wage and a "Medicare for all" health care can win over general-election voters. The senator is coming off a victory after Amazon announced last week it would raise its wages for its workers to $15 per hour starting next month, and will raise pay for employees who make more than that, responding in part to pressure from Sanders.
The tour kicks off on Oct. 19 in Bloomington, Indiana, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, with rallies and events on behalf of Liz Watson, who is challenging Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., and Gretchen Whitmer, who is running for Michigan governor.
Sanders will hold rallies and other events in South Carolina and Iowa on Oct. 20-21, including stops in Iowa in Sioux City, Fort Dodge and Ames on behalf of J.D. Scholten, who is challenging Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. His Iowa visit, his first since February, will come amid a boost of political activity in the caucus state, including Booker, who addressed Democratic activists last weekend, and Trump, who will hold a rally in Council Bluffs on Tuesday night.
The itinerary will also include rallies in Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and California, spanning a number of competitive races key to Democrats' electoral success. He will be campaigning alongside Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin; David Garcia, who faces Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey; Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.; and Jacky Rosen, who is aiming to unseat Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. Sanders' California swing will help Rep. Barbara Lee and two California congressional hopefuls, Ammar Campa-Najjar and Mike Levin.
Through early October, Sanders has traveled to 17 states in support of Democratic candidates and an array of policy issues. An online fundraising powerhouse in 2016, Sanders has maintained a list of millions of his supporters that he can use to help endorsed candidates.
Sanders is heavily favored to win re-election next month to a third term as Vermont's senator, allowing him to travel the nation in the weeks before the election. Sanders has called Trump a "pathological liar" who has bitterly divided the nation on social policies while overseeing an economic agenda that has further aggravated income and wealth inequality.
"We are clearly in an unprecedented moment in American history, a very, very dangerous moment. We have an unstable president who is a liar, who has very strong authoritarian tendencies," Sanders said during a campaign event in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, last month.
But he said there has been a "waking up among the American people, a desire to move this country in a very different direction, a disgust with the movement of this country toward oligarchy."