NEW YORK — Allies of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are rallying behind the embattled presidential prospect even as they reluctantly begin to ponder the painful possibility of a 2020 campaign without him.
The 77-year-old self-described democratic socialist is the most prominent contender to face a serious setback in the evolving White House field. He's been forced to confront reports detailing allegations of sexual harassment of women by male staffers when he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.
Sanders' loyalists expect him to launch a second campaign in the coming weeks, and his network of die-hard supporters is hosting hundreds of events across the nation this weekend encouraging him to run.
But the allegations put Sanders in an unenviable position in the early days of a contest playing out in the #MeToo era. While his competitors are visiting early-voting states and scoping out potential campaign headquarters, Sanders spent Thursday apologizing for the behaviour of a handful of 2016 campaign workers and looking for a new staffers for his 2020 operation should he run.
Some allies have had their confidence shaken in the future of the man who has reshaped Democratic politics in recent years and almost single-handedly brought liberal priorities such as "Medicare for all" and free college education into the party's mainstream.
"If he doesn't run, there's a massive void in this country," said RoseAnn DeMoro, an activist and former executive director of the National Nurses United union, who reaffirmed her support for Sanders. "The passion in that base goes away. That base evaporates. It doesn't go to someone else. There would be a void so deep it would go to (President Donald) Trump, I suspect."
Politico reported Wednesday that in July 2016, a former senior Sanders adviser forcibly kissed a young female staffer after making sexually explicit comments. Sanders' team said the adviser, who denies the allegation, would not be involved in a second campaign should there be one. Former campaign manager Jeff Weaver, who was made aware of some incidents after the campaign ended, would not serve as campaign manager again, although he may serve in another capacity.
No one has alleged that Sanders had direct knowledge of the incidents.
"Obviously, it's impacted all of us quite a bit. It's very upsetting," said Heather Gautney, executive director of Our Revolution, the political arm of Sanders' network.
Despite her concern, Gautney warned Democrats that a 2020 contest without Sanders would undermine plans to shake up health care, education, housing and other liberal priorities.
"Bernie is holding the flank on the left. If he doesn't run for president, then the whole horizon shifts, and universal health care maybe gets taken off the table," Gautney said. "In my view, he is an absolutely necessary part of our political system."
Sanders may not be taken seriously by some in the political establishment, but he would be a force in 2020. Having nearly beaten Hillary Clinton in the 2016 contest, he boasts an engaged nationwide network and an impressive grassroots fundraising ability. He almost certainly would draw some of the same voters being courted by likely 2020 contenders such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke.
Former Sanders' staffer Giulianna Di Lauro Velez, who alleged she was harassed during the 2016 campaign, wrote Thursday in The Intercept that sexual harassment is prevalent in many political campaigns. But she wrote that new allegations on Sanders 2016 campaign indicate "the depth of the problem was likely deeper than most knew."
She called on Sanders to "take the rare step of setting up an independent investigation into the 2016 allegations."
A Sanders spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about Velez's comments.
Earlier in the day, Sanders apologized, as he did last week, for the harm done under his watch and offered a direct message to women affected.
"I thank them from the bottom of my heart for speaking out. What they experienced was absolutely unacceptable and certainly not what a progressive campaign — or any campaign — should be about," Sanders said.
Sanders added: "Every woman in this country who goes to work today or tomorrow has the right to make sure that she is working in an environment which is free of harassment, which is safe and is comfortable, and I will do my best to make that happen."
Sanders' critics in the Democratic Party seized on the new revelations as reason to abandon any 2020 plans.
"These allegations inform us that Bernie is really not concerned about the well-being of women. And therefore, he would not represent us well as the president," said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women. "I really think Bernie needs to sit down."
Sanders' vast political network does not agree.
Katherine Brezler, co-founder of People for Bernie Sanders, said the allegations of sexual harassment had absolutely no impact on her preference for Sanders. The New York activist said that sexual harassment was present in virtually every one of the 100 or so campaigns she's worked on.
"I've met those people and they're not Bernie Sanders," Brezler said. "We are not going anywhere."
Associated Press writers Elana Schor and Juana Summers in Washington contributed to this report.