LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Republican front-runner Donald Trump swept to victory in the Mississippi and Michigan presidential primaries Tuesday, deepening his grip on the GOP nominating contest despite fierce efforts to block his path. Democrat Hillary Clinton easily carried Mississippi but was locked in a close race with rival Bernie Sanders in Michigan.
The primaries offered Trump and Clinton a chance to pad their leads and start turning toward the general election. But Sanders was hoping to prevent a Clinton coronation with a strong showing in Michigan, the night’s biggest prize and the first Midwestern industrial state to vote in the 2016 race.
With votes in Michigan still being counted, Clinton glossed over race with Sanders and jabbed at the Republicans and their chaotic nomination fight.
“Every time you think it can’t get any uglier, they find a way,” she said. “As the rhetoric keeps sinking lower, the stakes in this election keep rising.”
Trump, too, turned an eye toward the Democrats and November, emphasizing the importance of helping Republican senators and House members get elected in the fall. Having entered Tuesday’s contests facing a barrage of criticism from rival candidates and outside groups, he reveled in overcoming the attacks.
“Every single person who has attacked me has gone down,” Trump said at one of his Florida resorts. In his typically unorthodox style, the billionaire was flanked by tables packed with his retail products, including steaks, bottled water and wine.
While a handful of recent losses to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have raised questions about Trump’s durability, Tuesday’s contests marked another lost opportunity for rivals to slow his momentum. Next week’s winner-take-all primaries in Ohio and Florida loom especially large as perhaps the last chance to stop him short of a long-shot contested convention fight.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich was in a fight for second place in Michigan and hoping a good showing would give him a boost heading into next week’s crucial contest in his home state. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a favorite of Republican elected officials, continued to struggle Tuesday, upping the stakes for him at home on March 15.
“It has to happen here, and it has to happen now,” Rubio told supporters Tuesday during a rally in Sarasota.
If Rubio and Kasich can’t win at home, the GOP primary appears set to become a two-person race between Trump and Cruz. The Texas senator is sticking close to Trump in the delegate count and with six states in his win column, he’s argued he’s the only candidate standing between the brash billionaire and the GOP nomination.
During a campaign stop at a North Carolina church Tuesday, Cruz took on Trump for asking rally attendees to pledge their allegiance to him. He said the move strikes him as “profoundly wrong” and is something “kings and queens demand” of their subjects.
“I’m not here asking any of you to pledge your support of me,” Cruz said, to thunderous applause and cheers. “I’m pledging my support of you.”
Republicans were also holding contests Tuesday in Hawaii and Idaho. GOP candidates were fighting for 150 delegates, while 179 Democratic delegates were at stake in the party’s two primaries.
The economy ranked high on the list of concerns for voters heading to the polls in Michigan and Mississippi. At least 8 in 10 voters in each party’s primary said they were worried about where the American economy is heading, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.
Among Democrats, 8 in 10 voters in both states said the country’s economic system benefits the wealthy, not all Americans.
Sanders has sought to tap into that concern, energizing young people and white, blue-collar voters with his calls for breaking up Wall Street banks and making tuition free at public colleges and universities. Michigan, with big college towns and a sizeable population of working-class voters, should be a good fit for him. But Clinton has led in polling.
The results in Mississippi underscored Clinton’s overwhelming strength with black voters and Sanders’ stunning inability to draw support from voters who are crucial to Democrats in the general election. Clinton carried nearly 9 in 10 black voters in Mississippi, mirroring her margins in other Southern states with large African-American populations.
With Tuesday’s wins, Trump leads the Republican field with 428 delegates, followed by Cruz with 315, Rubio with 151 and Kasich with 52. Winning the GOP nomination requires 1,237 delegates.
Among Democrats, Clinton had accumulated 1,134 delegates and Sanders 502, including superdelegates. Democrats need 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Emily Wagster in Jackson, Mississippi, Kathleen Ronayne in Monroe, Michigan, and Steve Peoples in Sarasota, Florida contributed to this report.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.