WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton cemented her lead in the Democratic primary contest Tuesday with decisive victories in Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio — a sign that rival Bernie Sanders’ surge may have crested.
The strong result in four populous states was likely to significantly increase Clinton’s delegate lead over Sanders. Voters delivered what she had hoped for: a strong night that would allow her to unify the party and focus her fight on the Republicans.
“This is another super Tuesday for our campaign,” Clinton said at her primary night party in West Palm Beach, Fla. “We are moving closer to securing the Democratic Party nomination.”
The rivals were in a virtual tie in Missouri — the smallest of the five states voting Tuesday.
Sanders sounded many familiar themes during his election night speech in Phoenix. “To be truly free, you need economic security as well,” he said. “Do not settle for the status quo, for the status quo is broken.”
In a sign of the shifting environment for Sanders, none of the three major cable news stations carried all his speech live Tuesday night, instead broadcasting GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s remarks.
Clinton was winning 64.5 percent of the vote in Florida, to Sanders’ 33 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday. In Illinois, she led Sanders 50.5 percent to 48.7 with 94 percent reporting.
In North Carolina, she had 55 percent, with 99 percent reporting.
She captured 56 percent of the vote in Ohio, with 99 percent reporting.
The Ohio win was particularly gratifying for Clinton, who was startled last week when she unexpectedly lost Michigan to Sanders.
The rebound in a key Rust Belt state Tuesday showed that she has made some progress convincing working-class voters that she’s in their corner.
Clinton has pledged to crackdown on “corporate deserters,’’ telling audiences in the Midwest that she’ll punish companies that take tax breaks and then move operations overseas.
She has emphasized the need to bring back manufacturing jobs, support small businesses, and overhaul the country’s crumbling infrastructure.
Those messages have helped counter Sanders’ strategy of hammering Clinton on her prior support of trade agreements, including President Obama’s proposed Pacific Rim pact, which Clinton did not oppose until last fall.
“I proudly stood with the workers,” he said in Youngstown, Ohio, during a four-state campaign swing on Monday. “Secretary Clinton stood with the big-money interests.”
Hillary Clinton wins, holding off surging Bernie Sanders
The double digits victories for Clinton in North Carolina and Florida maintained her perfect record of sweeping southern states.
She again won huge margins among African-American voters in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, according to exit polls. She also dominated among Hispanics, a good sign for her going into the contest in Arizona next week.
Sanders dominated among voters under 30 years old in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio — three states he lost, exit polls showed. He also did well among voters with no college degree in those places.
Clinton’s comments Tuesday night tacked to the general election, as Trump has escalated his antiestablishment rhetoric and presided over increasingly tense rallies.
During her speech, she referred to Trump by name and ticked off some his more controversial policy ideas. She said the country needs a leader that will “defend America, not embarrass it; engage our allies, not alienate them; defeat our adversaries, not embolden them.”
She pointed to Trump’s plan to permit US forces to waterboard terror suspects: “When he embraces torture, that doesn’t make him strong it makes him wrong!”
Other leading Democrats have chimed in recently to criticize the rhetoric in the Republican race, including the president, who called the GOP contest “vulgar and divisive.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has so far declined to endorse in the Democratic primary, turned to social media Monday and described Trump as “a bigger, uglier threat every day that goes by.”
Sanders is encouraged by the primary schedule ahead, as he believes he can rack up victories later this month with Idaho and Utah, and then Washington state, which distributes 101 delegates.
During his speech Tuesday night, he predicted that he’ll prevail in Arizona’s primary next Tuesday “if the voter turn out is high.” He’s planning a campaign stop in Idaho on Friday.
But it’s becoming an increasingly steep climb to catch Clinton in the delegate count. Clinton began Tuesday with a roughly 200-delegate lead over Sanders, not counting the more than 400 party leaders, so-called superdelegates, who have committed to support her at the convention.
Before Tuesday, she needed to win about 40 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination. Sanders needed 61 percent of outstanding delegates as of Tuesday morning.
It wasn’t clear early Tuesday night exactly how many delegates each had won because the states have their own complicated formulas for apportioning points, but each state does give out points on a roughly proportional basis.
Unlike the GOP, the Democrats have no winner-take-all contests. (For example, Sanders narrowly won Michigan last week and took 67 delegates while Clinton received 60 from the state because of the close results.)
“We know that we will add to our delegate lead,” Clinton said Tuesday evening.
Tempering the wins for Clinton was a series of self-inflicted wounds in recent days, some of which could become fodder for Republicans.
She irritated AIDS activists and offended coal miners over the weekend.
Then on Monday she stirred up the Benghazi controversy, stating falsely that no Americans died in Libya while she was secretary of state.
“Now, is Libya perfect? It isn’t,” Clinton said to Chris Matthews on MSNBC Monday night.
Clinton compared the American policy in Libya with the current approach to Syria, a country that’s been mired in civil war.
“Libya was a different kind of calculation and we didn’t lose a single person,” Clinton said, referring to overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In fact, four Americans including US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens died in the September 2012 attacks on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. Republicans have long sought to blame Clinton for failing to secure the facility, which included a covert CIA base.
The series of stumbles started Friday when she credited former first lady Nancy Reagan with starting “a national conversation” on AIDS. In fact, the Reagan administration’s slow response to the epidemic is considered by activists to be one of the darker stains on his presidency.
Clinton later apologized for misstating the Reagans’ role.
Then, during a Democratic town hall Sunday night, Clinton gave a cringe-worthy answer while talking about clean energy. “We’re going to put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business,” Clinton said.
On Monday afternoon Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon was left with little room to maneuver and could only accuse Republicans of “trying to score political points by misinterpreting the intent” of Clinton’s coal comments.