Hillary Clinton took a major step toward her party’s presidential nomination on Tuesday night, routing rival Sen. Bernard Sanders across the South by a two-to-one margin.
But the Vermont senator racked up desperately needed wins in his home state and in three late-reporting states — Minnesota, Colorado and Oklahoma — and he vowed to fight all the way to the party convention in July.
With huge wins in Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and her home state of Arkansas, a confident Mrs. Clinton fully morphed into general election mode, brushing off Mr. Sanders with just a passing mention in her victory speech Tuesday night and turning almost all of her fire on GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
In a speech to supporters in Miami, Mrs. Clinton again took not-so-subtle shots at Mr. Trump, offering an early preview of the potential November contest.
“This country belongs to all of us, not just those at the top, not just the people who look one way, worship one way, or even think one way,” she said. “America prospers when we all prosper. America is strong when we’re all strong. And we know we’ve got work to do, but that work is not to make America great again. America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole. We have to fill in what’s been hollowed out. We have to make strong the broken places, restitch the bonds of trust and respect across our country.”
Mr. Sanders handily won his home state of Vermont, came out on top in Colorado, triumphed in Oklahoma, and took the caucuses in Minnesota.
While his path to the nomination seems to be shrinking, Mr. Sanders won’t go quietly.
Speaking to supporters in Essex Junction, Vermont, shortly after the polls closed, Mr. Sanders said he won’t drop out of the race anytime soon and intends to continue campaigning in each state left to vote after Tuesday.
“This campaign is not just about electing a president. It is about transforming America. It is about making our great country the nation we know it has the potential to be,” Mr. Sanders said. “We are going to take our fight for economic justice for social justice, for environmental sanity, for a world of peace, to every one of those states” yet to vote.
But Mr. Sanders’ viability over the coming months is questionable at best.
With a strong delegate advantage and a significant lead in national polls, Mrs. Clinton now is in the driver’s seat and appears destined for the Democratic nomination, and some political analysts say the party essentially can begin shifting to general election mode ahead of the inevitable Sanders exit.
“It is a luxury for Democrats to be able to begin the fall campaign so early in the process,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Before Tuesday’s primaries, Mrs. Clinton had 548 delegates compared to 87 for Mr. Sanders. The totals include both pledged delegates and so-called “superdelegates,” or party leaders who are free to support whomever they choose.
The Real Clear Politics average of all national polls shows Mrs. Clinton with a 9.5-point lead over Mr. Sanders.
Early in the race, Mr. Sanders had momentum on his side following a razor-thin loss in the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1 and a resounding win in the New Hampshire primary a week later. He followed up that win with a concerted attempt to paint Mrs. Clinton as a creature of the political establishment, zeroing in on her ties to Wall Street.
Those attacks, however, appear to have had minimal impact, and Mrs. Clinton has begun to pull away in the weeks since the New Hampshire primary. She secured a strong win in the Nevada caucuses two weeks ago and demolished Mr. Sanders in the South Carolina primary last Saturday, largely because of her commanding lead with African-American voters.
That advantage also was key to her Southern victories Tuesday, and she demolished Mr. Sanders in all Southern states that went to the polls Tuesday.
Across the South, incomplete results showed her winning with roughly two-thirds of the vote in Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Virginia.
Mrs. Clinton also came out on top in Massachusetts, snatching a state from Mr. Sanders on his home turf of New England. Networks called the race with about 87 percent of the vote in, with 51 percent of the vote going to Mrs. Clinton and 48 percent to Mr. Sanders.
In Vermont, with just under 30 percent of returns in, Mr. Sanders handily won with about 86 percent of the vote to 13 percent for Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Sanders also won Oklahoma with 52 percent of the vote to 40 percent for Mrs. Clinton, with 51 percent of precincts reporting.
In Colorado, with about 22 percent of the vote in, networks called the race for Mr. Sanders. The senator captured 58 percent of the vote, compared to 41 percent for Mrs. Clinton.
Beyond her huge advantage among minority voters, there are other reasons Democratic voters seem to be flocking to Mrs. Clinton. The Clinton campaign seems to have successfully painted Mr. Sanders as a wild-eyed dreamer with a policy platform full of ideas that have no chance of becoming reality, especially with a Republican-controlled Congress.
Some voters say Mrs. Clinton’s personality lends itself more to pragmatic politics, while Mr. Sanders’ does not.
“She has the skills. She has the knowledge. She has the experience and the ethical principles,” Kathryn Kozaitis, 59, a cultural anthropology professor at Georgia State University, said Tuesday after casting her ballot at a polling place in Atlanta.
She went on to say that Mr. Sanders could play an important role in the party, but simply isn’t qualified to be president.
“He should be organizing a revolution on the streets like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi,” Ms. Kozaitis said. “To be president is the establishment.”
Others say they actually prefer Mr. Sanders’ platform but simply don’t think he has a chance of beating the Republican nominee in November.
“I like a lot of the things Bernie Sanders says and he is probably closer to my own thoughts, but Hillary to me seems much more likely to win,” said Steven Fitzgerald, 72, of Alexandria, Virginia, who cast his ballot for Mrs. Clinton on Tuesday.
Some Democrats chose Mrs. Clinton because they view her positions as more in line with the party’s traditional ideas.
Carlos Gutierrez, a 47-year-old airline pilot from Atlanta, told The Washington Times that Mrs. Clinton is the only Democrat in the race.
“I’m a Democrat. [Mr. Sanders] is not a Democrat,” he said after casting his vote for Mrs. Clinton. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the last eight years and she will be best for continuing the same progress.”
For her part, Mrs. Clinton is trying to shed her image as a cold, steely politician by calling for a kinder, gentler America.
“I believe what we need in America today is more love and kindness,” she said.
But Tuesday also continued to shine a light on some of the potential problems Mrs. Clinton may encounter as she heads toward the general election.
Mr. Sanders continues to perform well with younger voters, and while many of those voters have flocked to the senator because of his stance on income inequality, others seem to have soured on Mrs. Clinton because of her time as secretary of state.
“My reservation about Hillary is she was my least favorite part of the Obama administration,” Morgan Roberts, a 20-year-old computer science major at Emory University, said after voting for Mr. Sanders in the Georgia primary. “My friends say we can’t tell how much was Obama and how much was her. But I don’t like the way foreign policy was handled.”
There also are concerns that independent voters or moderate Democrats may be lukewarm at best toward a Clinton candidacy.
Beverly, a 67-year-old who describes herself as a progressive, cast her vote for Republican John Kasich in Tuesday’s Virginia primary election. She added that she’s sick of the Clintons.
“Primarily, I am not happy with the Democratic candidates and I like Bernie Sanders, but I felt like I needed to cast a vote for sanity, and I think that is John Kasich,” she said after voting in Alexandria.
• Seth McLaughlin and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.