[WASHINGTON] Hillary Clinton essentially declared the Democratic nomination race over, moving to quash concerns about an uprising by Bernie Sanders's supporters and refocus Democrats on defeating Republican Donald Trump, who she called unqualified to hold the nation's highest office.
"I will be the nominee for my party," the former secretary of state said in an interview with CNN on Thursday. "That is already done. There is no way I won't be."
Asked whether she believes presumptive Republican nominee Trump is qualified to be president, Mrs Clinton said, "No, I do not."
Mr Sanders's campaign responded by saying voters have "growing doubts" about Mrs Clinton. Mr Trump issued a statement saying: "She has bad judgment and is unfit to serve as president at this delicate and difficult time in our country's history."
Since winning key primaries in March that solidified her advantage in the nomination contest, Mrs Clinton and her campaign have increasingly expressed confidence in her ability to secure the nomination. But her latest assessment is her most definitive declaration to date.
It follows days of Democratic Party upheaval at a time when Mr Trump is moving to consolidate Republicans around him by naming prospective Supreme Court nominees embraced by conservatives, and as new polls suggest that if the general election were held today, Mr Trump could edge out Mrs Clinton.
"In the past three weeks voters in Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon respectfully disagreed with Secretary Clinton," Mr Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said in an e-mailed statement. "We expect voters in the remaining eight contests also will disagree. And with almost every national and state poll showing Sen Sanders doing much, much better than Secretary Clinton against Donald Trump, it is clear that millions of Americans have growing doubts about the Clinton campaign."
Simmering divisions among Democrats reached a boil last weekend when some Sanders backers lashed out at a Nevada state party convention where they felt the rules and leaders unfairly favoured Mrs Clinton. They booed speakers and some hurled profanity and death threats at the state party chairwoman, stirring fears about violence and disunity at the national convention in July.
Mr Sanders, under pressure to condemn their approach, issued a statement on Tuesday that blamed the Democratic Party establishment for fueling his supporters' anger, inserting a general condemnation of violence into the middle of his response.
The Sanders campaign and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz then publicly turned against one another.
Mr Sanders also reacted to Mrs Clinton's narrow win in Kentucky's primary on Tuesday and his clear win in Oregon by vowing to keep fighting "until the last ballot is cast."
He told supporters that he still has the "possibility" of overtaking Mrs Clinton in pledged delegates - an assertion Mrs Clinton's team and other Democrats say gives his backers false hope and a misunderstanding of the process. Mrs Clinton now has about 96 per cent of the delegates and superdelegates needed to clinch the nomination, according to an Associated Press estimate.
"Bernie raised this in his speech in California and I'm sure she was responding to him," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a Democratic superdelegate backing Mrs Clinton, said of the CNN interview.
Ms Weingarten said she and other Clinton backers must now "calm the waters" for the sake of unity and respect Sanders's right to keep campaigning.
At the same time, she said, it's appropriate for Mrs Clinton to respond to Mr Sanders by "saying what's probably obvious. It's mathematically impossible for Bernie to secure the nomination."
FOLLOWING THE PROCESS
Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and Clinton backer, said on Thursday: "I believe that Hillary will be the nominee. She's certainly there." "We should follow the process until the end," Ms Mikulski said.
At the same time, she said of the Vermont senator and longtime independent, "Bernie needs to do the math and then he also has to really affirm his own principles that when he signed up to be a Democrat, finally, a few months ago, he signed up for the rules of the Democratic Party."
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he trusts Mr Sanders. "I'm not going to pull the plug on Bernie Sanders's campaign until he's ready," he said on Thursday.
On Mr Trump, Mrs Clinton said his recent criticism of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, proposals to ban entry of Muslims to the US and his talk of dismantling Nato and letting Japan and South Korea develop nuclear weapons show he doesn't have the necessary judgment to serve as president.
Many of his statements are "not just offensive to people but potentially dangerous," Mrs Clinton said in the CNN interview. "This is a pattern that's gone on now for months."