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Clinton sweeps Sanders in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina
[WASHINGTON] Hillary Clinton turned her sights on the general election and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump Tuesday after decisive wins in the Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina Democratic primaries strengthened her grip on the party's nomination.
The trio of victories on one of the most delegate-rich nights of the Democratic presidential contest had her supporters confident that she would emerge from Tuesday with a virtually insurmountable delegate lead. And even with the Illinois and Missouri primaries outstanding, Mrs Clinton used her victory speech in Florida to address a showdown with Mr Trump in November.
"Tonight, it's clearer than ever this may be one of the most consequential elections of our lifetimes," Mrs Clinton said at a rally in West Palm Beach. "Our commander in chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it, engage our allies, not alienate them, defeat our adversaries, not embolden them."
Signalling the campaign is entering a new phase, Mrs Clinton explicitly targeted Mr Trump, saying that the next president "has to bring our country together so we can all share in the promise of America."
Mrs Clinton entered the night leading the polls in each of the states. But her victories will re-energise her campaign after a surprise loss to Sanders last week in Michigan.
Her win in Ohio, especially, will help allay fears among Democrats that she couldn't win in states dominated by white, blue-collar voters where Mr Sanders's populist, anti-free trade message has resonated.
Like other states where Mrs Clinton has had her biggest wins, Florida and North Carolina have large proportions of minority voters.
With almost all precincts reporting in Florida, Mrs Clinton had 65 per cent of the vote to 33 per cent for Sanders.
In North Carolina, Mrs Clinton was drawing 55 per cent and Mr Sanders 40 per cent with two-thirds of precincts reporting results. She was leading Mr Sanders in Ohio 57 per cent to 43 per cent.
A total of 621 delegates are at stake for Democrats on Tuesday, and all of the contests award them on a proportional basis. As a result, making up ground will be tough for Mr Sanders with Mrs Clinton running up wide margins. Florida will award 214 delegates, with Ohio offering 143 and 107 in North Carolina.
In the outstanding races, Mrs Clinton led Mr Sanders by a 53 to 47 per cent margin in Illinois, the state where she grew up. In Missouri, with 15 per cent of precincts reporting, the two candidates remained in a virtual deadlock, with Mrs Clinton posting a 50 to 48 percent lead.
Mrs Clinton entered the night with 768 pledged delegates compared with 554 for Mr Sanders, with 2,383 necessary to win the nomination. When you include superdelegates - party officials and lawmakers allowed to back whoever they want - Mrs Clinton's lead expands to 1,235 to 580 for Mr Sanders, according to a tally compiled by the Associated Press.
Clinton aides said they expect the candidate will have a lead of at least 300 pledged delegates after Tuesday.
Mr Sanders had been looking to pull an upset in Ohio after his victory in neighboring Michigan, a state that is demographically similar.
Mr Sanders has been able to capitalise on previous victories to raise money from small donors, helping him extend his fight for the nomination. He was already signaling his intention to fight on by scheduling a rally Tuesday night in Arizona, which holds its primary March 22. The schedule ahead features several caucuses, which have tended to favor Sanders.
In Arizona, which votes on March 22, Mr Sanders delivered a spirited version of his standard stump speech and gave no indication he would slow his campaign.
He criticised Mrs Clinton for accepting donations from corporate interests and giving paid speeches to Wall Street firms, and called on her to release the transcripts of those addresses.
"We cannot go forward unless we deal with the realities of American society today," Mr Sanders said in Phoenix. "And that is what we're going to do."
The Midwestern states are particularly important for the Democrats. While Ohio and Missouri have been swing states in recent presidential elections, Michigan and Illinois have been solidly Democratic in the past six.
If Mrs Clinton had sustained tough losses in addition to her stumble in Michigan, it would likely have prompted hand-wringing among Democrats concerned that Mr Trump's campaign could make inroads in manufacturing areas with his frequent criticism of trade imbalances with countries such as China and Mexico.
The emphasis both candidates have put on the March 15 contest is evident from their ad spending heading into Tuesday night.
Mr Sanders had committed US$9.8 million in radio and TV commercials in the five states since March 8 while Mrs Clinton was slated to spend US$6.7 million, according to estimates by Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks political ads.