Resounding wins for Hillary Clinton allow her to focus on Trump, whose victory knocked Rubio out in big night for the Republican and Democratic frontrunners
This article titled “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton surge ahead after key primary wins” was written by Dan Roberts in Chicago, David Smith and Lauren Gambino in Palm Beach, Florida, and Sabrina Siddiqui in Miami, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th March 2016 09.16 UTC
Hillary Clinton crushed hopes of a Bernie Sanders surge on a night of sweeping wins that saw her shift her gaze to the prospect of a bitter battle for the White House with Donald Trump.
As Clinton looked set to take all five states in the Democratic contest on Tuesday, Trump also tightened his grip on the Republican race, on the verge of winning four out of five contests and forcing Marco Rubio to suspend his campaign after inflicting a bruising defeat in his home state of Florida.
In the Democratic race, Sanders could not capitalise on last week’s surprise win in Michigan as Clinton won by a distance in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, before grinding out a much narrower win in Illinois. A recount in two small precincts of Jackson County left the Missouri race on a knife edge, with Clinton leading by just 1,531 votes with 99.9% of the votes in.
In her victory speech, Clinton increasingly turned to face Trump head-on, having secured crucial support from working-class Democrats in the industrial midwest who had shown signs of defecting to the more radical promise of Sanders.
“This is shaping up to be one of the most consequential campaigns of our lifetime,” she said. “The next president will sit down at that desk and start taking decisions that will affect the lives and livelihoods of everyone in this country, indeed everyone on the planet.
“Our next commander in chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it – engage our allies, not alienate them,” added Clinton in a direct challenge to Trump. “When we hear a candidate for president call for rounding up 12 million immigrants, barring all Muslims from entering the United States, when he embraces torture, that doesn’t make him strong, it makes him wrong.”
Her night began with expected but overwhelming victories in Florida and North Carolina – completing her clean sweep of the south – but it was a 14-point victory over Sanders in Ohio and a narrow 50.3% to 48.8% win in Illinois that allowed her to pull almost 300 delegates ahead.
Trump substantially cleared his path toward the Republican nomination, with the contest now down to only three candidates. Conservative rival Ted Cruz was denied any wins from the five states up for grabs. However, a recount was suspended for the night in Jackson County, Missouri, where only 1,726 votes divided Trump and Cruz in a winner-takes-all state which has 52 delegates at stake.
Only John Kasich raised hopes of denying Trump outright victory in the nomination race after winning in his home state of Ohio. For those Republicans desperate to halt the billionaire television celebrity, the best hope now lies in denying him enough delegates to win a simple majority, forcing him into a contested party convention this July.
Trump, who is now more than halfway to securing the delegates he needs to avoid this scenario, was in combative mood at a victory celebration in Florida.
“There is great anger, believe me, there is great anger,” he warned as he explained why he thought so many first-time voters and independents were flocking to his stark anti-establishment message.
Growing violence at Trump rallies has dominated media coverage in the days leading up to voting and led Barack Obama to warn that the xenophobic rhetoric risked tarnishing “America’s brand” internationally.
Arguing that pluralism and tolerance were core American values during remarks on Capitol Hill, Obama warned: “Why would we want to tarnish that?”
Crowds at the Rubio rally in Miami gasped at the news of his defeat – by 18 points –and broke into boos and chants of: “We want Marco!”
Rubio soon emerged to congratulate Trump on a “big win” but decried the politics of anger and resentment and warned: “America is in the middle of a real political storm, a tsunami.”
Bowing out of the race, Rubio said: “This may not have been the year for a hopeful and optimistic” candidate.
Rubio’s exit from the race deprives establishment Republicans of the candidate they viewed as the palatable alternative to Trump. Whether they would be willing to rally around Cruz, the disliked Texas senator, remained unclear.
North Carolina was next, last in a slew of southern states to have dominated the early primary season and helped both Clinton and Trump take commanding leads over their rivals.
Strong support among African American voters once again helped Clinton beat Sanders in the south – she led North Carolina by a margin of 15 points with 74% of votes counted.
Trump narrowly held off Cruz in North Carolina and then chalked up Illinois by eight points from Cruz.
Kasich was bullish after his victory in Ohio, but Cruz insisted he was now in a two-man race with Trump. However, Trump who won 18 out of the first 27 states, is in a dominant position.
The biggest question in the Republican race now appears to be whether Trump can bag the 1,237 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination outright and avoid a potentially ugly contested convention in Cleveland in July.
Having secured all 99 delegates from Florida, Trump was set to be the night’s big winner, but he could yet fall short, raising the prospect of the party establishment attempting to snatch the nomination from him.
Such a move would risk provoking an outpouring of anger from his supporters and would be particularly difficult if he is only 100 or so delegates short and clearly ahead of his rivals.
Perhaps the most disappointed figure of the night was Sanders whose recent win in Michigan had rekindled some hopes on the left that his anti-corporate message could resonate in the rustbelt, but instead Sanders was left near-speechless at a rally in Arizona where he did not even mention the night’s heavy defeats.
After Clinton’s string of victories on Tuesday, her campaign said her lead would be “very hard to overtake” but stopped short of saying it was insurmountable. The campaign also refused to call on Sanders to exit the race.
“It is not up to us when the Democratic primary ends,” Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, told reporters after Clinton’s speech in Florida. “But we believe that it is a very strong lead, twice the size of any lead Senator Obama had as a candidate over then Senator Clinton.”
Palmieri added: “When she ran against President Obama in 2008 she stayed in until the end. She said that she would never call on someone to drop out.”
In her speech, Clinton recalled her 2008 primary night victory in Ohio, which her campaign hailed then as a turning point in the hard-fought race against then Senator Barack Obama.
“Eight years ago, on the night of the Ohio primary I said I was running for everyone who’s ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out; for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up; for everyone who works hard and never gives up. Well that is still true,” Clinton said in her speech.
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