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A confident Bernie Sanders barnstorms Texas with burst of momentum

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Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke during a campaign rally in San Antonio after being declared the winner of Nevada's Democratic caucuses on Feb. 22, 2020. Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

A confident Bernie Sanders barnstormed Texas this weekend with just over a week until its delegate-rich Democratic presidential primary, reaping the momentum of an easy win Saturday in the Nevada caucuses and setting his sights on another major victory here.

"We have won the popular vote in Iowa, we won the New Hampshire primary, we won the Nevada caucus and don’t tell anybody because these folks get very, very agitated and nervous — we’re gonna win here in Texas, and in November we’re gonna defeat Trump here in Texas," Sanders said Sunday afternoon in Houston.

The independent U.S. senator from Vermont made a similar declaration Saturday evening in San Antonio, where he took the stage shortly after networks projected him the Nevada winner. Announcing the victory, Sanders said his campaign has "just brought together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition, which is not only going to win in Nevada — it's going to sweep this country."

Sanders got yet another boost Sunday afternoon in Austin, where a former rival, Marianne Williamson, made a surprise appearance to endorse him. The eccentric self-help author and spiritual adviser, who ended her campaign in early January,

Early voting is already halfway over for Texas' March 3 primary. It began Tuesday and ends Friday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has led most polls of the Texas primary until recently. Sanders has pulled ahead of Biden, within the margin of error, in two surveys released in recent days, including a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll that came out Feb. 14.

Sanders, who was in Texas about a week ago for a Dallas-area rally where he also expressed confidence about winning here, had the state to himself this weekend as he drew thousands to large venues across Austin and El Paso in addition to Houston and San Antonio. His primary opponents spent the weekend either in Nevada, South Carolina (the next state on the nominating calendar) or other Super Tuesday states.

The candidate traffic in Texas is set to pick up soon, with both Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg announcing Saturday that they will return to Texas. Warren will have a town hall Thursday in San Antonio with Julián Castro, her rival-turned-surrogate and the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor. It will be her first visit to the state since September.

Bloomberg will hold rallies Wednesday and Thursday in Fort Worth and Houston, respectively, making his sixth trip to the state since launching his campaign in late November. He has made far more visits to the state over the same period than any other candidate as he skipped the first four contests.

The airwaves are also getting more crowded in Texas. Three candidates have been on the air: Bloomberg, Sanders and Tom Steyer. But that will change Tuesday, when Warren begins a new buy across three states including Texas, specifically Austin and San Antonio. As part of the buy, she is airing a spot voiced by Castro and featuring images of him.

Sanders, though, commanded the spotlight this weekend in Texas. His visit to El Paso was particularly notable because no other remaining primary candidate has been there beside Bloomberg. Their attention to the border city — far from Texas' biggest media markets — won them praise Saturday from El Paso's most famous politician, former 2020 presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, who does not plan to endorse before the Texas primary.

"This is a community that is often overlooked despite the critical role it plays for our country," O'Rourke wrote on Twitter. "Hope others will follow their lead."

In El Paso, Sanders narrowed in on issues including the mass shooting at a Walmart store there last summer. Before the rally, Sanders visited the memorial for the 22 victims of the Aug. 3 massacre that authorities have said was committed by a white supremacist who wanted to ward off a “Mexican invasion” of Texas.

"I was thinking what a horror it is to see that not only was there a mass shooting, there was a mass shooting here just trying to kill Latino people," he said. "What we have got to do as a country is do everything possible to end the hatred. We are all human beings with common dreams."

Sanders held his El Paso rally at the downtown Abraham Chavez Theatre, where venue officials said the crowd inside met the 2,500-person capacity and about 100 more were in an overflow room. Outside the venue, Sanders’ supporters said they were impressed the candidate traveled to Texas the same day as the Nevada caucuses.

"I think it’s very big for him to leave the caucus to come talk to El Paso," said Jessica Ceniceros, 21. "I think it’s what we need as a city and as Texas as a whole. It just shows that he cares about us."

The rallies drew both diehard Sanders supporters and Texans showing up more out of curiosity, both as the primary nears and as Sanders' chances of winning the nomination grow. That was apparent in interviews with people waiting for Sanders' rally Sunday afternoon at Austin's Auditorium Shores, a waterfront park outside downtown where Warren held her last campaign event in the state.

"I'm not a huge Bernie fan, but I'm not against Bernie by any means," said Christian Boddy, a 30-year-old software project manager who lives in Austin. "If he gets the ticket, I'll go for it, but I'm here to support him and I'm not against him, so I'm here to learn more."

While Sanders spent the weekend predicting a general election breakthrough in traditionally red Texas, Republicans scoffed.

"Bernie Sanders’ socialist agenda will not resonate with Texas voters," Samantha Cotten, a campaign spokeswoman for President Donald Trump, said in a statement. "Whether it’s wanting to destroy the energy industry, government-run health care or massive tax increases, Texans will reject Sanders’ extreme policies and reelect President Trump."

Julián Aguilar contributed reporting from El Paso, and Alex Samuels contributed reporting from Austin.