Winning in Va. and Ga., Clinton looks to solidify her lead; Sanders wins in Vermont
MIAMI >> Hillary Clinton achieved key victories in Georgia and Virginia to extend her lead over Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, who won his home state of Vermont but risks a major setback if he has a poor showing in the rest of the Super Tuesday contests.
Backed by black voters, Clinton aims for a sweep of Southern states holding primaries and polls showed her with a big advantage in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas. Sanders could only bank on the home-state win and both campaigns were vying for support in Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oklahoma.
As polls closed, Clinton spoke to a forum of black women hosted by the television network BET at the St. Regis hotel in Miami.
"I'm thinking about how we can elevate the political dialogue away from the insults and really mean-spirited language," she said.
Clinton and her allies have already shifted some attention to Donald Trump, casting the Republican front-runner as divisive and unprepared to lead the country. The Republican contest, said Clinton, has "turned into a kind of one-upsmanship on insulting."
All told, Clinton and Sanders were competing for 865 delegates in 11 states and American Samoa on Tuesday, the biggest single-day prize of the 2016 campaign.
With her victories in Georgia and Virginia, Clinton is assured of at least 108 delegates. Sanders will receive at least 57 from Vermont. Forty-eight remain to be allocated in those three states.
Black voters powered Clinton to victory in South Carolina last weekend and were expected to give her a huge advantage throughout the South.
Nearly half of Democratic primary voters in Alabama and Georgia were black, according to early results of exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks. In Texas, about 3 in 10 Democratic primary voters were Hispanic and a little fewer than 2 in 10 were black.
Greta Lewis voted with her mother at the Central Christian Church in Memphis. Both women are black and chose Clinton.
"She has been the one who has stepped out to at least try to identify with most of the minorities, whether they're women, black, Asian, Hispanic," said Lewis, a 31-year-old receptionist at her mother's dental office.
Exit polling also showed voters pushing to continue President Barack Obama's policies rather than the kind of leftward shift championed by Sanders.
Clinton entered Tuesday with 546 delegates, including super delegates — the party leaders and members of Congress who can support any candidate. Sanders lags with 87 delegates. It takes 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.
Clinton visited Minnesota before heading to Miami, foreshadowing the importance of Florida for the general election.
Sanders decamped to Essex Junction, Vermont. He has vowed to stay in the race until the party's convention — and he showed no signs of retreating as he talked to supporters after the Vermont polls closed about income inequality, government-funded college degrees and criminal justice reform.
"This campaign is not just about electing a president — it is about transforming America," Sanders said.
Despite his obstacles, the Vermont senator has little incentive to fold. He reported raising more than $42 million in February, a sign that he will have the money to go deep into the spring.
Thomas reported from Burlington, Vermont. Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.