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Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988

He says Sanders should focus on unity

CNN  — 

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson is urging Bernie Sanders, amid escalating tensions within the Democratic Party, to keep his eye on the ball: Defeating Donald Trump in November.

Jackson told CNN Thursday morning that he has been in touch with advisers to both Sanders and Hillary Clinton in recent days to emphasize the importance of party unity as Democrats prepare for a likely general election fight against Trump.

Sanders “must support the winner, Hillary, over Donald Trump. That’s his very public position and I hope he will hold that position,” Jackson said, adding that the Democratic primary should be viewed as the “intra-league competition” that precedes the battle for the White House in November.

The Clinton campaign declined to comment and the Sanders campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Despite calls from some party leaders for Sanders to drop out, Jackson said he believes the Vermont senator has “every right” to remain in the race until someone has reached the delegate threshold to clinch the party’s nomination. However, once Clinton becomes the nominee, Sanders must work to ensure that his supporters don’t assume that the only option come November is to “stay home or support Trump,” Jackson added.

Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988. He remains an influential voice in progressive circles and a prominent leader in the African-American community.

His comments Thursday come amid growing strain between Sanders and Clinton.

Although Clinton has a significant lead in delegates and is expected to clinch the nomination before the party’s convention this summer, Sanders has declined to drop out of the race. Having amassed a large following over the last year, the senator says he is determined to influence the Democratic Party platform this summer.

The in-fighting reached fever pitch over the weekend at the Nevada Democratic Party Convention, where frustrated Sanders supporters accused the Clinton camp and party leaders of trying to subvert party rules. Chaos broke out at the gathering, and state party chairwoman Roberta Lange even received threatening messages.

The development was met with fierce condemnation from national party leaders like Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wassermann Schultz and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Jackson warned that he can envision Democrats growing “very anxious and very agitated,” even as he gave Sanders credit for “expanding the party” and predicted that the senator would leave a lasting mark beyond 2016.

“The issues that he’s raised – student loan debt, bank governance – those positions are going to prevail whether he wins or not,” Jackson said. “His positions are well within the lines of Democratic Party philosophy.”

CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.