By John Whitesides and Amanda Becker
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton crushed rival Bernie Sanders at the South Carolina primary on Saturday, propelling her into next week’s crucial “Super Tuesday” voting in 11 states on a wave of momentum.
The rout of Sanders solidified Clinton’s status as the strong front-runner to capture the party’s nomination for the Nov. 8 election in her quest to become America’s first woman president.
With nearly half of the votes counted in South Carolina, Clinton led Sanders by a 50-point margin, dramatically reversing her 28-point loss in the state to President Barack Obama during their bitter 2008 primary battle.
The former secretary of state’s victory decisively established her strength among black voters, a crucial Democratic constituency who make up more than half of the party’s primary electorate in South Carolina.
After the win, Clinton appeared to be looking ahead to a general-election matchup with Republican front-runner Donald Trump, the billionaire whose campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again” and has called for building a wall on the border with Mexico.
“Despite what you hear, we don’t need to make America great again, America has never stopped being great,” she told cheering supporters in Columbia after the win. “Instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers.”
The result was Clinton’s third victory in the first four Democratic contests, and raised more questions about whether Sanders, the democratic socialist U.S. senator from Vermont, will be able to expand his support beyond his base of predominantly white liberals.
“Today you sent a message,” Clinton said. “In America, when we stand together, there is no barrier too big to break.”
Sanders admitted defeat early in the night.
“Let me be clear on one thing tonight. This campaign is just beginning. We won a decisive victory in New Hampshire. She won a decisive victory in South Carolina. Now it’s on to Super Tuesday,” Sanders said in a statement.
The Democratic race now becomes a broader national contest. Eleven states, including six in the South with large minority populations where polls show Clinton with big leads, will vote on Super Tuesday and four more over the next weekend.
“Tomorrow, this campaign goes national,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s camp was hoping a big win in South Carolina, after more narrow victories in Iowa and Nevada and Sanders’ clear win in New Hampshire, will set her up for a big night on Tuesday, when about 875 delegates will be up for grabs, more than one-third of those needed to win the nomination.
Sanders, who has energized the party’s liberal wing and brought young people to the polls with his message of attacking income equality and reining in Wall Street, needs a breakthrough win in a key state in the next few weeks to keep his hopes alive.
“The door is closing fast for Bernie Sanders,” unaligned Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said. “Movement candidates are about momentum and excitement, and losses sap that momentum. That’s his problem right now.”
Recognizing his steep odds in South Carolina, Sanders had spent most of the past week in states that will vote in March. As the results rolled in on Saturday, he was scheduled to hold a rally in the “Super Tuesday” state of Minnesota.
(Additional reporting by Alana Wise in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell)
Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks about the results of the South Carolina primary to supporters at a primary night party in Columbia, South Carolina, February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Randall Hill