Clinton looks to close Sanders out in March

Story highlights

  • "Tomorrow, this campaign goes national," Clinton said
  • Clinton campaign hoped to open up a 100 earned delegate lead over Sanders after Super Tuesday

Columbia, South Carolina (CNN)Hillary Clinton, buoyed by a dominating win in South Carolina on Saturday, is opening a dual-track strategy in her bid for the White House, gradually pivoting toward Republicans even as she works to expand her lead across more than a dozen states voting this week.

"Tomorrow, this campaign goes national," Clinton said, reveling in her historic victory in a speech to supporters, signaling a new phase of the nominating contest.
    Sen. Bernie Sanders, who immediately turned his attention to Super Tuesday states even before the scope of his defeat was clear, said his campaign was only beginning and intends to fight to the Democratic convention in July. While Clinton aides expect Sanders to stay in the race well beyond March, they see the next two weeks as a critical stretch that could make it nearly impossible for Sanders to win the nomination.
    "The aircraft carrier is definitely shifting to the general election this week," a top Democrat close to Clinton said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid getting ahead of the campaign and alienating Democrats who have yet to vote.
    The wide margin of her South Carolina victory accelerates her transition to the general election. Clinton has mentioned Sanders less and less in recent days and in her victory speech targeted Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner.
    Advisers to Clinton increasingly believe Trump is more likely than not to be the Republican nominee, which injects a considerable dose of uncertainty into any fall contest. A Clinton-Trump matchup, should that ultimately develop, could mean a new general election battleground, with states like New Jersey, Michigan and even Pennsylvania potentially competitive for Republicans.
    "Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again," Clinton said Saturday night, referring to Trump's campaign slogan. "America has never stopped being great."
    Clinton's campaign, feeling more confident than it did after a narrow win in Iowa and a double-digit defeat in New Hampshire, has started to evaluate how it would run against the now smaller Republican field and what each candidate would mean for Clinton.
    Sen. Marco Rubio, aides to Clinton believe, is also a worrisome foe. But he is seen as a more traditional candidate that would allow the campaign to focus on many of the same swing states then-Sen. Barack Obama had to win in 2008, namely Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

    Clinton looks to open up 100-delegate lead

    Clinton was confident going into South Carolina on Saturday. She spent the day campaigning in Alabama -- where she stridently hit Republicans at a fired up rally and joked with supporters at a local coffee shop and restaurant.
    Her aides were even more hopeful. Clinton's campaign stopped polling in South Carolina a week before Saturday's contest because they thought it was a waste of money given what they saw as an all-but-certain win.
    Looking ahead, Clinton's aides know they are not going to knock Sanders out on March 1, but they hope by the end of the night on Tuesday -- where 865 delegates are at stake -- their campaign will have at least a 100 earned delegate lead over the Vermont senator.
    Bernie Sanders: 'Democracy is not a spectator sport'
    bernie sanders south carolina concession speech_00005626

      JUST WATCHED

      Bernie Sanders: 'Democracy is not a spectator sport'

    MUST WATCH

    Bernie Sanders: 'Democracy is not a spectator sport' 01:04
    Sanders' advisers knew that South Carolina was a difficult state for him to win, which is why he spent the week on the road and Saturday night in Rochester, Minnesota, where he delivered his usual stump speech -- drawing enthusiastic applause when he delivered sharp criticism of Clinton's super PAC, paid speeches and vote on the Iraq war.
    In the opening moments, a line he often repeats took on a far more serious meaning: "What this campaign is about -- is not just electing a president, it's about transforming America ..."
    That's the challenge facing Sanders in the coming weeks: Can he revive his serious quest for the nomination or does he gradually become a protest candidate?
    Sanders acknowledged Clinton's South Carolina victory from the tarmac upon arriving in Minnesota. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose," Sanders said. "Tonight we lost. I congratulate Secretary Clinton on her very strong victory. Tuesday, over 800 delegates are at stake and we intend to win many, many of them."
    In the next three days, Sanders will target Colorado, Massachusetts and Oklahoma. Sanders' aides believe that Southern states are all but out of reach, given the large share of black voters.
    Clinton sees a different -- slightly broader -- map on Tuesday.
    Clinton left for Tennessee shortly after claiming victory in South Carolina and in the coming days she will visit Arkansas, Virginia and Massachusetts, among other states, in an effort to solidify her support.
    "We are going to compete for every vote in every state," Clinton said on Saturday night. "We are not taking anything and we aren't taking anything for granted."
    Clinton's top aides are confident they will run sizable delegate totals in the South, winning states like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
    And though they concede that Sanders will score big in Vermont -- his home state -- they think they can win in Oklahoma and Minnesota.
    Their tightest battles, aides said, will be in Massachusetts and Colorado.
    Clinton will watch returns on Super Tuesday in Miami, Florida, a state that doesn't vote until March 15. Aides say that decision was made in an effort to show the campaign is confident they will win the day on Tuesday and will be ready to look forward to future contests.

    Sanders sets Super Tuesday expectations

    Sanders' expectations for Super Tuesday: Four wins, six losses and Massachusetts as a toss-up.
    The Vermont senator laid out his list of target states Sunday in an interview with CBS' "Face the Nation" host John Dickerson.
    "I'm in Minnesota. I think we're going to win here in Minnesota, I think we're going to win in Colorado, I think we're going to win in Oklahoma, I think we're going to do really well in Massachusetts and I think we're going to win in Vermont," Sanders said, highlighting five of the 11 Super Tuesday states.
    "And I think we've got a number of states coming up that we're going to do extremely well and possibly winning, including California and New York state," he added.
    How Sanders lost South Carolina
    How Sanders lost South Carolina

      JUST WATCHED

      How Sanders lost South Carolina

    MUST WATCH

    How Sanders lost South Carolina 02:22
    The six Super Tuesday states Sanders didn't mention -- Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas -- all have large shares of minority voters and appear to favor Clinton.
    Polls back up Clinton's strong positioning in those states: A new set of NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist surveys released Sunday morning showed Clinton with leads of about 2-to-1 in Texas, Georgia and Tennessee.
    Sanders, meanwhile, is targeting states with whiter and more liberal voters.
    The problem for Sanders: The six states he's all but conceding to Clinton best the number of delegates up for grabs in the four he said he expects to win by a 2-to-1 margin.
    Still, his references to New York, which votes April 19, and California, which votes June 7, foreshadow a lengthy Democratic primary.
    Sanders is facing a tough road through mid-March. After Super Tuesday, the race will move to Michigan on March 8 -- a key test of whether he'll be able to defeat Clinton in any of the five big states that vote the following week, March 15: Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.
    If Sanders can survive through those contests, the race will shift to western states with whiter populations, which are more likely to favor Sanders.
    After Saturday's blowout, Sanders admitted he has work to do to make up ground with minority voters.
    "We did really, really badly with older African-American voters. I mean, we got decimated," he said. "On the other hand, if you look at the younger people, African-American younger people and whites, we did much better."
    He downplayed the ability of a single state to drastically change the race's outlook.
    "If you were with me yesterday in Texas, you would have seen 10,000 people out in Austin, 8,000 people out in Dallas," Sanders said.
    "We had a wonderful turnout here in Rochester, Minnesota, last night," he said. "I believe we have a lot of momentum. You know, sometimes the media says, 'Well, this state had an election, it is the end of the campaign.' It is not. We have dozens of more states to go. We're feeling good about the future."