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A big night for Clinton, as she sweeps all five states

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Tuesday was always supposed to be one of the most important nights in the Democratic presidential primary race, but for Hillary Clinton, it was even bigger than she and her team expected.

Clinton swept the night, winning Ohio, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and maintaining a narrow lead in Missouri, which is so close that the losing candidates are allowed to request a recount. The victories put her firmly on course to defeat her primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who had hoped to upset her in at least one of those Midwestern states. As the results were announced on Tuesday evening, Clinton took the stage before a boisterous crowd of supporters here and seemed to pivot toward the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, who also won in Florida.

“We are moving closer to securing the Democratic Party nomination and winning this election in November!” Clinton declared.

Clinton came into the presidential race as the overwhelming frontrunner for her party’s nomination. After faltering in the early states, she began to pull ahead, with a massive victory in South Carolina on Feb. 27. She followed that win with a string of victories on Super Tuesday, March 1. Those wins had a campaign source predicting to Yahoo News that Clinton’s delegate lead over Sanders would be “effectively insurmountable” once this evening’s votes were counted. Sanders’ team also knew this evening’s numbers would be crucial, and in early strategy sessions, they cited March 15 as a turning point, after which they would know whether or not his underdog bid was truly viable.

It looked as if Sanders might prove the Clinton campaign’s bullish prediction wrong after he won a stunning upset in Michigan on March 8, but Clinton’s victories on Tuesday helped her stop Sanders’ momentum and establish a seemingly unbeatable lead.

Though Clinton was expected to win the primaries in North Carolina and Florida on Tuesday, polls showed her potentially losing in Ohio, Arizona, Missouri and Illinois. Even if Sanders had won all of the states that were in play on Tuesday, he would still have faced an uphill battle. However, by taking Ohio and Illinois, Clinton definitively pulled ahead.

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Hillary Clinton greets supporters at the Palm Beach County Convention Center after winning the Ohio, Florida and North Carolina primaries on Tuesday. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Slideshow: March 15 presidential primaries >>>

Though the results in Arizona, Missouri and Illinois still had not been projected at the time she spoke, Clinton pointed out that her trio of victories had allowed her campaign to “add to our delegate lead to roughly 300.”

“I’ll tell you, this is another Super Tuesday!” Clinton said.

Her lead only grew as the night wore on.

After congratulating Sanders “for the vigorous campaign he’s waging,” Clinton turned to Trump, framing the election as “one of the most consequential campaigns of our lifetimes.” She specifically criticized several key aspects of his platform, including his positions on immigration and waterboarding.

“When we hear a candidate for president call for rounding up 12 million immigrants, banning all Muslims from entering the United States, and he embraces torture, that doesn’t make him strong, it makes him wrong!” Clinton said. “We should be breaking down barriers, not building walls.”

Clinton went on to directly invoke Trump and take a shot at his campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again.”

“To be great, we can’t be small, we can’t lose what made America great in the first place,“ said Clinton, adding, “And this isn’t just about Donald Trump, all of us have to do our part.”

Sanders took the stage shortly after Clinton’s appearance in Florida and addressed more than 7,000 of his cheering supporters in a convention center in Phoenix with his usual stump speech. The 74-year-old senator mentioned raising the minimum wage, getting money out of politics, fixing free trade deals and reforming the criminal justice system, among other typical stump-speech issues.

What Sanders didn’t mention were the five states that voted in the Democratic primaries Tuesday night, and what the results meant for his viability as a candidate. This was in contrast to Sanders’ election night appearance on Super Tuesday, when he explicitly downplayed his mixed showing and reassured his supporters that he would take the fight to “every” state. In contrast with most election night gatherings, there were no TVs showing primary results in Phoenix, so Sanders’ supporters were not shown Clinton’s wins racking up in the background as the evening progressed. Arizona’s Democrats vote next Tuesday, and Sanders is expected to do well in the state.

“The reason we have done as well as we have, the reason we have defied all expectations, is that we are doing something very radical in American politics: We are telling the truth!” Sanders said. No major cable network carried his speech, which coincided with Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s remarks and later, as Sanders continued speaking, with Donald Trump’s victory speech. The senator urged Arizonans to show up at the polls for him next week at the end of his address.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Phoenix. (Photo: Nancy Wiechec/Reuters)

Sanders’ top advisers have stressed that the senator will continue his well-funded campaign until the end of the primaries, and last week’s surprise win in Michigan appeared to breathe new life into Sanders’ bid. But Clinton’s sweep significantly dims his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee. Sanders had hammered Clinton on her past support for free-trade deals, but she still pulled out a win in Ohio and Illinois.

Sanders’ top aides did not come out to speak to reporters at his event in Phoenix. However, in Florida, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, Jen Palmieri, took questions shortly after Clinton’s speech. Palmieri noted she had just “bid farewell to a very happy Hillary Clinton.” Palmieri also said Clinton and Sanders had not yet spoken to each other.

Palmieri spoke before results were announced in Illinois and Missouri. She acknowledged those states would be “close” and could go either way, but argued that the night still sent a decisive message.

“Sen. Sanders spent over $7 million in the last week running pretty negative ads … stepped up rhetoric attacking Hillary Clinton,” Palmieri said. “I think the results today prove that approach is rejected by the voters. They’re looking for someone who is offering solutions, particularly on the economy, not just talking about the problem.”

Palmieri also addressed the fact that several of the upcoming contests in the Democratic primary, particularly in states that hold caucuses, could favor Sanders. Still, Palmieri pointed to Clinton’s steadily increasing lead.

“Our delegate lead is very high, I would say, so we understand that there are a lot of contests … that we have yet to face, and we will face them, but … it’s going to be very hard to overtake her,” Palmieri said, adding, “And I think that the results tonight, even if there are contests that we don’t do well in, will continue to speak for themselves.“

Though Palmieri expressed confidence that Clinton will secure the nomination, she repeatedly stressed that the campaign remains “focused” on the Democratic primary rather than the general election. Multiple reporters asked if Clinton or her allies would begin pressuring Sanders to drop out. Palmieri deflected the question several times by saying it was not “up to” Clinton’s staff to make that decision.

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Clinton supporters cheer as results come in during an election night event at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“When she ran against President Obama in 2008, she stayed in till the end,” Palmieri said of Clinton, adding, “She said that she would never call on someone to drop out. … That’s not up to us.”

Palmieri also strenuously denied that Clinton was making a pivot to campaigning against Trump, even though the Republican frontrunner was named in her speech.

“I’m going to let the speech speak for itself, but I wouldn’t assume that those comments were directed at any particular one candidate,” Palmieri said.