COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Hillary Clinton resoundingly reclaimed her standing as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination with a lopsided victory in South Carolina, a win over Bernie Sanders that doubles as a strong send off toward Super Tuesday.
For Sanders, the roughly 50-point defeat crystalized his weakness with black voters, a crucial segment of the Democratic electorate. If he loses blacks by similar margins in the Southern states that vote Tuesday, Clinton would likely take a delegate lead difficult for the Vermont senator to overcome.
As Clinton relished the most sweeping victory of her
political career, her focus was already on Super Tuesday — and the general election.
"Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again," Clinton said at a rally Saturday night, alluding to Republican front-runner Donald Trump and his campaign slogan. "America has never stopped being great," Clinton declared.
Like Clinton, Trump has won three of the four early voting contests. He's cleared the field of nearly all his rivals, but is engaged in an increasingly bitter contest with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, two senators scrambling to stop the billionaire from running away with the GOP nomination.
The Republican candidates fired insults at each other Saturday. Cruz asked parents if they would be pleased if their children spouted profanities in the manner of the brash billionaire, while Rubio mocked Trump as a "con artist" with "the worst spray tan in America."
For Clinton, South Carolina was a moment to wipe away bitter memories of her loss to Barack Obama there eight years ago. She won the support of nearly 9 in 10 black voters, crucial Democratic backers who had abandoned her for Obama in 2008.
Sanders, expecting defeat on Saturday, left the state before voting finished and turned his attention to states outside the South that vote in next Tuesday's delegate-rich contests. He didn't mention the results of the South Carolina vote once in a nearly hour-long speech in Minnesota late Saturday night, but in a statement, vowed to fight on aggressively.
"This campaign is just beginning," he said. "Our grass-roots political revolution is growing state by state, and we won't stop now."
Clinton allies quickly touted the breadth of her victory. Along with blacks, she won most women and voters aged 30 and older, according to early exit polls.
Sanders continued to do well with young voters, his most passionate supporters. He also carried those who identified themselves as independent and most white voters.
A self-described democratic socialist, Sanders has energized his supporters with impassioned calls for breaking up Wall Street banks and making tuition free at public colleges and universities. But the senator from Vermont, a state where about 1 percent of the population is black, lacks Clinton's deep ties to the African-American community.
While Sanders spent the end of the week outside of South Carolina, his campaign did invest heavily in the state. He had 200 paid staff on the ground and an aggressive television advertising campaign.
Exit polls showed 6 in 10 voters in the South Carolina primary were black. About 7 in 10 said they wanted the next president to continue Obama's policies, and only about 20 percent wanted a more liberal course of action, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.
Clinton's second White House bid lurched to an uneven start, with a narrow victory over Sanders in Iowa and a crushing loss to the senator in New Hampshire. She pulled off a five-point win over Sanders in last week's Nevada caucus, a crucial victory that helped stem Sanders' momentum.
Clinton's campaign hopes her strong showing in South Carolina foreshadows similar outcomes in states such as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia that vote Tuesday and have large minority populations.
Taken together, 865 Democratic delegates are up for grabs in the Super Tuesday contests in 11 states and American Samoa. Sanders aims to stay close to Clinton in the South while focusing most of his attention on states in the Midwest and Northeast, including his home state of Vermont.
Sanders has built a massive network of small donors and has the money to stay in the race deep into the spring. Still, Clinton's campaign sees a chance to build enough of a delegate lead to put the race out of reach during the sprint through March.
Clinton picked up most of South Carolina's 53 delegates, winning 39 to Sanders' 14.
Going into South Carolina, Clinton had a one-delegate edge over Sanders. However, she has a substantial lead among superdelegates, the Democratic Party leaders who can vote for the candidate of their choice at this summer's national convention, regardless of how their states vote.