By David Smith and Sabrina Siddiqui
Bernie Sanders sees prospects of winning Democratic nomination diminishing after Clinton’s strong showing in north-eastern primary states
Hillary Clinton appears to be within touching distance of the Democratic nomination after victory in Maryland set her up for a dominant night in Tuesday’s primary elections.
The victory, called by the Associated Press moments after polls closed at 8pm eastern time, was expected to be the first of a convincing night.
Her rival Bernie Sanders has made clear that he has the funding and the determination to fight on all the way to the summer convention in Philadelphia, but his prospects are diminishing by the week.
Sanders was defiant in a speech to supporters in Huntington, West Virginia, saying that some national polls now show him leading Clinton.
He also leads Donald Trump by a bigger margin than she does, he added, noting that independent voters have not been able to vote for him in some Democratic primaries.
“In a general election everyone – Democrat, independent, Republican – has the right to vote for president. The elections are not closed primaries. We were in New York state last week. Three million people in New York state could not vote because they were independents. Those folks, in November, will be voting for the next president of the United States.”
Whilst there was no olive branch from Sanders - and no desire to make his speech after Clinton’s strong showing in the five north-eastern states voting in the so-called “Acela primary” – a reference to the rail line which connects Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland - puts her on course to become the first female candidate for either major party in a general election.
Before Tuesday’s votes were counted, the former first lady and secretary of state had already racked up 82% of the delegates needed to clinch her party’s nomination. By the end of the night, the race could be all but mathematically over.
The Clinton campaign projected confidence as voters cast their ballots, with aides indicating they expected to win four of the five states up for grabs – with Rhode Island, where Sanders has led in the polls, the exception.
Clinton was already looking ahead on Tuesday afternoon, spending the day campaigning in Indiana, ahead of its 3 May primary. She toured Munster Steel Co in Hammond, Indiana, a steel and iron manufacturing site founded in 1957.
Addressing the workers who fabricate steel for buildings and bridges, Clinton vowed, if elected, “to make the steel industry’s survival one of my top priorities”.
“As president, I will go to bat for all of our trades,” she said.
Clinton has largely shifted gears toward the general election in recent weeks, seldom mentioning Sanders in her stump speech and focusing instead on drawing a contrast to Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. At the steel plant, Clinton rebuked Trump’s assertion that wages were too high and also criticized a proposal by Cruz that would chip away at union and workers’ rights.
Clinton also toured the plant of AM General, a heavy vehicle manufacturer in Mishawaka, Indiana, that makes, among other vehicles, Mercedes that are only sold in China. In remarks to employees after inspecting the facility, Clinton struck similar themes about the need to bring auto industry jobs back to America and spoke of a proposed “manufacturing renaissance”.
Clinton took an aggressive posture toward China, which she charged with abusing global trade rules such as dumping steel on international markets.
Here, Clinton did take a swipe at Sanders over his vote in 2009 against a second round of funding to bail out the auto industry.“My esteemed opponent in this primary – he voted not to provide the funding the auto industry needed,” Clinton said.
In the coming weeks, Clinton will continue to ratchet up her focus on jobs and the economy after solidifying her standing as the Democratic nominee-in-waiting. Manufacturing, she said, would be “at the core” of her plans to lift the middle class.
A rout in four or five states, where 384 delegates are at stake, would deal Sanders another blow and quell any lingering doubts that the momentum he gathered in March could see him overhaul Clinton.
Before the polls closed, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said he did not think Sanders had a path to winning. “No, I do not,” he told reporters. “Bernie is going to do what he feels is appropriate and I have every confidence that Bernie, his number one issue is not him, it’s the country.”
However, the Vermont senator has the enthusiastic support and the will to soldier on. On Tuesday afternoon, his campaign issued a defiant email that contained a photo of Clinton smiling up at Donald Trump that was taken when she attended his wedding in 2005. It had the pointed caption: “Donald Trump and the one candidate in this race he said would make a ‘great president’.”
The Sanders fundraising email arrived on a day when the Republican frontrunner wrote on Twitter that Sanders “has been treated terribly by the Democrats” and should run as an independent.
Sanders has said he would not make an independent run for the White House. But he declared on ABC’s Good Morning America on Tuesday: “I don’t want to break the bad news to you, but the election is not over yet.”
He also warned that Clinton still had to “convince the vast majority of the people ... that she is on their side”.
With her march to the nomination seemingly unstoppable, Clinton must now harness Sanders’ fan base – many of them millennials – and build Democratic party unity. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released this week found that four in 10 Sanders supporters said they were not sure if they would vote for Clinton. Another 13% said they would vote for Trump over Clinton.
On MSNBC on Monday, Clinton challenged the notion that she would have to adopt more of Sanders’ leftwing platform to win over his supporters, saying that she has won more votes and delegates and offered her own specific policy plans. She also said that she did not make demands in 2008, when she lost to Obama.
“We got to the end in June and I did not put down conditions,” he said. “I didn’t say, ‘You know what, if Senator Obama does W, Y, and Z, maybe I’ll support him.’”
Sanders has turned his focus to coming primary contests and planned to spend Tuesday evening in West Virginia, which votes next month. His speech in Huntington could offer clues about his future tone.