Joe Biden takes command of Democratic race with new wins

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus outbreak and how the US is responding.
Former vice president Joe Biden also tops the polls in the other two states voting on Tuesday - Arizona and Illinois. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Joe Biden swept the Democratic presidential primaries being held on Tuesday (March 17), with wins in Arizona, Florida and Illinois giving him a commanding lead over his rival Bernie Sanders in the battle to secure the party's nomination.

Mr Biden's domination of the race since the South Carolina primary has put him on a glide path to the party's nomination to take on President Donald Trump in November.

The former vice-president won by wide enough margins that he now has a 284-delegate lead over Mr Sanders and more than half the nearly 2,000 needed to secure the nomination at the party's national convention this summer.

With the coronavirus forcing campaigns to abandon traditional rallies and events, Mr Biden delivered televised remarks from his home in Delaware rather than a victory speech.

He spoke mostly about what the country needs to do to confront the crisis of the pandemic.

But he also made an appeal for unity to the core of Sanders supporters whose votes he'll need in the general election.

"To the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders, I hear you, I know what's at stake, I know what we have to do," Mr Biden said.

"Our goal as a campaign and my goal as a candidate for President is to unify this party and then to unify the nation."

Mr Trump, who has only token opposition in the Republican primaries, has reached the threshold of delegates needed to be the presumptive GOP nominee after running up 94 per cent of the vote in Florida.

The three primaries were being held as the coronavirus outbreak spreads in the US and disrupts schedules for businesses, schools and campaigns alike.

Ohio was supposed to be among the states voting on Tuesday, but the state health director ordered the polls closed despite a court on Monday rejecting Republican Governor Mike DeWine's effort to postpone.

Five other states so far have announced they would delay primaries until late May or June because of the virus.

The outbreak appeared to be holding down in-person voter turnout for Tuesday's primaries but early vote and mail-in balloting seemed to be on par with early state contests.

Mr Sanders was already trailing Mr Biden in polls, but the coronavirus pandemic has further hampered his campaign.

He's had to cancel the large-scale rallies that have helped him build an enthusiastic base.

Many of the college campuses where he finds support from new voters have closed and sent students home.

And older voters, who tend to vote by early and by absentee ballot, overwhelmingly favour Mr Biden.

Just before all the polls closed in Florida, Mr Sanders delivered an address by livestream from Washington that made no mention of Mr Biden, the night's contest or the nomination race.

He instead focused on his own proposals to avoid an "economic catastrophe" caused by the coronavirus.

In all, it would cost US$2 trillion (S$2.85 trillion), he said, about double the amount being considered by the Trump administration and Congress.

"This is the richest country in the history of the world," Mr Sanders said. "We can address this crisis. We can minimise the pain and let us do just that."

The three states voting on Tuesday will award a total of 441 delegates, making it the third-biggest delegate haul on the primary calendar and a tipping point in the nomination contest.

Mr Sanders himself has acknowledged that he's losing the delegate battle - and that even supporters who agree with his policies are rallying around Mr Biden as the nominee.

But he says his proposals of Medicare for All and free college tuition are gaining support.

"Joe has won more states than I have. But here's what we are winning. We are winning the ideological struggle," the Vermont senator said, citing exit polls showing a majority of Democrats favour his Medicare-for-All healthcare plan.

Mr Sanders argues that the coronavirus pandemic makes his government-run health insurance plan even more essential.

Still, with more states pushing back their primaries because of the public health emergency, it will be difficult for Mr Biden to mathematically clinch the nomination before June unless Mr Sanders drops out.

The Biden campaign released figures that they said showed early voting was up substantially over 2016 in all three states holding primaries, while conceding the final turnout numbers may be lower as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Biden has been attempting to counter one of the campaign arguments made by Mr Sanders, who says he would be better at motivating voters in the November election against Mr Trump.

The front-runner's campaign also is trying to bolster the case for what they say is the inevitable outcome from Tuesday's voting.

"It would take a drastic, historically incomparable swing for Senator Sanders to win more delegates than Biden today or to close the delegate differential," Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.

"Even if after tonight's contests, Biden hasn't significantly increased that lead, Sanders would need to win upcoming elections by an average of 15-20 points to overtake Biden in delegates."

The question for Mr Sanders is whether to keep his campaign going.

For Mr Biden's allies, Mr Sanders staying in would only make it harder to create the unity the Democratic Party will need to defeat President Donald Trump in November.

"What we can't do is get into a process that makes it more likely that Donald Trump is re-elected," said Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana in a phone call with reporters arranged by the Biden campaign.

"There are going to have to be hard decisions that are made after the next couple of primaries."

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