Hillary Clinton added North Carolina and at least two other delegate-rich states to her column Tuesday, wins that moved her closer to getting the Democratic presidential nomination.
Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, won a close contest in North Carolina but racked up a big victory in Illinois and an even bigger one in winner-take-all Florida that forced that state’s senator, Marco Rubio, to drop out of the GOP race.
Still, establishment Republicans hoping to keep Trump from winning the party’s nomination were buoyed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s victory in his home state. Trump’s loss in Ohio, another winner-take-all state, will make it more difficult for the billionaire businessman to garner the 1,237 delegates he’ll need by the time Republicans hold their July convention in Cleveland.
Also hoping to block Trump’s path to the nomination is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has defeated Trump in several states and finished a close second in North Carolina.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Clinton made it an early-evening triple play by also winning in Florida and then Ohio – a state where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had hoped to duplicate his surprise upset in Michigan last week.
Still uncertain for the Democrats: Missouri and Illinois, where Clinton and Sanders were close. In Missouri, Trump and Cruz were also locked in a tight battle.
Clinton, in a victory speech in West Palm Beach, Fla., took aim at Trump, still her most likely opponent in the general election.
“You voted for our tomorrow to be better than our yesterday,” she said, as the crowd chanted “Hillary, Hillary.” She took a shot at Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, his support of waterboarding and plans to round up and deport more than 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“That doesn’t make him strong, it makes him wrong,” she said. “We should be breaking down barriers, not building walls.”
Trump thanked his supporters in a victory speech delivered from Mar-a-Lago, his luxury Florida resort. He predicted that the narrowing Republican field will help him get above 50 percent of voters in upcoming contests.
“They don’t understand basic physics, basic mathematics, whatever you want to call it,” he said of pundits who have criticized him for winning with pluralities. “Someday they’re gonna understand, someday when we take it all, they’ll understand.”
Trump also restated his commitment to the Second Amendment and veterans. He said he plans to defeat ISIS and that America will win more if he becomes president.
“We’re going to make the best trade deals you’ve ever seen,” Trump said. “We’re going to do so good with trade.”
Rubio, who had once been a favorite to take down outsider Trump, dropped out of the race Tuesday.
“It is not God’s plan that I be president in 2016 or maybe ever,” Rubio told a crowd of supporters in Miami. He warned against the divisive politics that have dominated the campaign. “I ask the American people, do not give into the fear, do not give into the frustration,” Rubio said.
In visits to North Carolina, Clinton stressed her experience and reached out especially to women and African-American voters. Sanders, meanwhile, targeted Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street and fired up young supporters by pledging to have free tuition at public universities and raise the minimum wage to $15.
At his North Carolina rallies, Trump tapped into the anger of voters outraged at illegal immigration, terrorist attacks and trade deals that have caused many American factory jobs to vanish.
In North Carolina, Trump was leading the Republican field with 41 percent of early returns. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was second, with 37 percent, and Kasich had 12 percent.
Clinton’s margin of victory in the Tar Heel State was more comfortable, 55 percent to Sanders’ 41 percent.
In Mecklenburg County, Trump led 33 percent of early returns to Cruz’s 29 percent and Kasich’s 24 percent. Clinton was also ahead in the state’s largest county, 62 percent to Sanders’ 37 percent.
In Orange County, home of UNC-Chapel Hill, Sanders – a favorite with young voters – was up 50 percent to Clinton’s 48 percent. Cruz led there with 32 percent, followed by Trump with 24 percent.
In Wake County, Cruz was leading with 40 percent, followed by Trump, with 29 percent. Clinton led the Democratic race there, with 54 percent to Sanders’ 44 percent.
At stake in Tuesday’s elections were 691 Democratic and 367 Republicans delegates.
Voters lined up early across the state to cast their ballots Tuesday.
Outside the precinct at West Charlotte High Tuesday morning, 91-year-old John Thomas Neal Sr. said he was voting for Clinton because of her longstanding support of education.
Neal said he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be around, but that his grandchildren would benefit from good educations. “I felt like she’s the one for me,” said Neal.
Cleveland and Maria Pegues, who voted at the Southview Recreation Center in west Charlotte, also cast their ballots for Clinton.
“It’s time for a woman to be in there,” said Maria Pegues, 59.
Husband Cleveland, 61, who retired from Coca Cola, said Clinton in the White House would also benefit from having her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as an adviser.
“Her husband was a good president,” he said, “and can give her some tips.”
Over at Forest Hill Church, off Park Road in Charlotte, John Sitton, 75, and wife Kay, 59, voted for Trump.
“He’s the only (Republican) who can beat Hillary,” he said. “And he can’t be any worse than Obama.”
Cruz was the choice of James Smith, a 43-year-old FedEx driver from Lincolnton, who voted for the Texas senator before Tuesday.
“We need to get back to the Constitution. Cruz is a constitutionalist, and I trust him,” Smith said. “Morally and socially, we’re going in a bad direction in this country. Cruz would support religious freedom.”
On Monday, Clinton and Sanders held rallies in Charlotte. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned for Hillary Clinton last week in Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro.
Clinton also made a last-minute stop in Raleigh on Tuesday, in addition to a campaign stop in Durham last week.
Trump also gathered supporters Monday near Charlotte, holding a rally in Hickory. He also held rallies in Concord and in Fayetteville last week. The Fayetteville rally generated controversy after a supporter was shown on video punching an anti-Trump protester in the face.
Cruz held a rally in Kannapolis last week along with one in Raleigh, and then had another rally in Concord on Sunday. He appealed to white evangelical Christians and hard-line Christians who praised Cruz’ willingness to stand up to his Senate colleagues in Washington by trying to filibuster the Affordable Care Act.
Digital specialist Clayton Hanson, staff reporter Bruce Henderson, staff photographer Davie Hinshaw and staff reporter Joe Marusak contributed.
Tim Funk: 704-358-5703, @timfunk
Hillary Clinton 54.62%
Bernie Sanders 40.62%
Ted Cruz 36.69%
John Kasich 12.46%
Marco Rubio 7.67%
Donald Trump 40.56%
2,444 of 2,709 precincts reporting