US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves after addressing a primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, on February 27, 2016
Columbia (United States) (AFP) - Hillary Clinton scored a resounding victory against Bernie Sanders in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, seizing momentum ahead of the most important day of the nomination race: next week's "Super Tuesday" showdown.
Four weeks into the White House primaries, the former secretary of state earned her first decisive win of the campaign, after a nail-biter victory in Iowa, a thumping loss to Sanders in New Hampshire, and then a five-point win in Nevada.
South Carolina was the first southern state to vote for a 2016 Democratic nominee, before the race broadens to 11 contests across the country.
"Tomorrow this campaign goes national," Clinton said to a loud roar as she thanked supporters in Columbia, South Carolina, where she emerged with a clearer path to the nomination.
"We are going to compete for every vote in every state. We are not taking anything, and we are not taking anyone, for granted."
US networks called the race for Clinton immediately after polls closed in the Palmetto State, where the majority of Democratic voters are African-American, a voting bloc that she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have successfully courted for decades.
Clinton also looked beyond her battle with Sanders, tweaking the man many now see as the likely Republican nominee: Donald Trump, whose campaign slogan is "Make America Great Again."
"Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great," she said, reading off a teleprompter.
"But we do need to make America whole again," she added, laying out an argument against the divisive rhetoric favored by Trump, who has antagonized immigrants, Muslims and campaign rivals.
"I know it sometimes seems a little odd for someone running for president these days and in this time to say we need more love and kindness in America," she added. "But I am telling you from the bottom of my heart, we do."
- Redemption -
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Clinton stood at 73.5 percent compared to 26 percent for Sanders.
The comprehensive victory marks a moment of redemption for Clinton who in 2008 lost badly in the state to Barack Obama -- his win here serving as a turning point for his ultimately victorious campaign.
Exit polls in South Carolina showed African-Americans -- who represented 61 percent of all Democratic voters in the primary -- backed Clinton by a stunning 86 percent, more than had supported Obama eight years prior.
Clinton assiduously courted black voters, in part by praising Obama and promising to build on his legacy.
She also campaigned alongside black surrogates, and visited African-American churches and historically black colleges.
South Carolina marked a "great test" for the coming votes in other southern states and showed that Clinton "can get a broad base of support of all demographics," her communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters, as the candidate shook hands and posed for selfies with supporters.
"This was significant. We were not expecting that decisive a victory," Palmieri added.
- 'Just beginning' -
Sanders a self-described democratic socialist seeking to launch a "political revolution" in America, was already looking past South Carolina.
Early Saturday he headed to Texas, where he addressed a crowd of 10,000 people, and then Minnesota, two states in play next Tuesday when the Vermont senator needs to keep his head above water if he wants to challenge Clinton deeper into the nomination race.
Sanders swiftly offered Clinton his congratulations, but also insisted he was in it for the long haul.
"Let me be clear on one thing tonight. This campaign is just beginning," he said in a statement after results came in.
Speaking at a rally in Rochester, Minnesota, Sanders made no mention of his loss in South Carolina, instead touching on familiar campaign themes.
"When you have billionaires and Wall Street and corporate America pouring hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process, that is not democracy, that is oligarchy," he told the crowd.
As the Democrats voted, the Republican race churned on as Trump traded barbs with rival Marco Rubio, who in recent days has launched a fierce assault on the billionaire real estate mogul.
"I want to save the (Republican) party from a con artist," Rubio, seen by many as the man best-positioned to topple Trump, said at a stop in Kennesaw, Georgia.
Rubio accosted Trump for "flying around on hair force one," and having "the worst spray tan in America."
Trump pushed back Saturday, blasting Rubio as a "lightweight" and a "liar."
"The Republican Establishment has been pushing for lightweight Senator Marco Rubio to say anything to 'hit' Trump," the billionaire posted on Twitter Sunday.
- 'Super Tuesday' -
Among Democrats, Clinton leads in the national delegate count at this early stage, having now won three of the first four nomination contests.
Gloria Major, a grandmother and campaign volunteer who supported Clinton in 2008, was among the ecstatic crowd listening to her victory speech in Columbia.
"She has been in battles, she is one woman that can lead this country," Major, who is black, told AFP. "For years she has had our best interest at heart."
The 11 states that hold Democratic nominating contests Tuesday will send a whopping 18 percent of the delegates to July's nominating convention in Philadelphia.
Clinton is ahead in most, but Sanders has the edge in Massachusetts and his home turf of Vermont.