WASHINGTON -- For the last month, the Democratic presidential candidates have had a straightforward task: Campaign heavily in the small, overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and hope to emerge with momentum.
Things are about to get a whole lot more complicated.
A still-jumbled Democratic primary is entering a new phase, as a suddenly truncated political calendar forces the remaining candidates to figure out how to compete in 18 separate contests over the next three weeks -- effectively demanding they transform their local campaigns into national ones.
The timeline, including the Nevada caucuses, the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, will present difficult decisions for campaigns on how to spend their limited time and money as they strategically compete for a giant pot of delegates in a diverse set of states. The outcome will determine which candidates can march on deep into the contest -- and which will be pushed out.
"Early states are all about positioning yourself," said Elan Kriegel, director of analytics on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. "Super Tuesday and beyond is about winning the nomination. That's the fundamental difference."
Adding to the challenge is that the seven candidates who emerged from the lead-off contests are also about to confront Michael Bloomberg, who has spent $350 million and counting of his own money on ads, presenting a new variable for even the best-funded delegate leaders like Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
"Bloomberg doesn't grapple. He just does all of it. He advertises everywhere. He staffs up everywhere. He's actually been quietly traveling around everywhere," said Bob Shrum, the veteran Democratic consultant who steered John Kerry's 2004 White House bid. "Buttigieg will apparently have resources, but it'll be a fifth or a tenth of what Bloomberg will spend. Even Sanders -- with all the fundraising prowess he has -- will be massively outspent by Bloomberg."
The next three weeks will separate operations that have true national strategies from those who can only afford to compete in a select few places, many of which have had limited exposure to the campaign.
"This isn't going to be easy and it's not going to be clean and it's not going to be quick," said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic communications consultant who advised Hillary Clinton's 2008 run.
While Nevada's Feb. 22 caucuses stand as the next stop on the map, campaigns are already looking beyond it to delegate-rich March 3 behemoths like California, which has already been voting for more than a week, and Texas, which begins its early vote on Tuesday. Combined, those two states will award more than 640 pledged delegates, nearly ten times as many as were awarded by Iowa and New Hampshire.