LOS ANGELES —Voters in New Jersey kicked off coast-to-coast primaries Tuesday with Hillary Clinton already holding enough delegates to become the first woman to lead a major party in the race for the White House.
But the voting across six states — which wraps up in California — will be watched as a showcase of the support still behind Clinton’s resilient rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, after a bitter nomination battle that Clinton was once expected to win in a walk.
Even as Clinton looks ahead to the expected showdown with Republican Donald Trump, she also must work to bring aboard Sanders’s legions of backers, including many young voters who could be an important bloc in the run against Trump.
Clinton has claimed exactly the number of delegates needed to secure victory, according a tally by the Associated Press on Monday, by picking up commitments from superdelegates over the weekend.
With that milestone, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state has ended more than two centuries of national history in which only men have been the standard-bearers for the major political parties.
She also overcame her crushing loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, as well as a political environment this year that favored outsiders at the expense of her establishment credentials. And she became the first spouse of a former president to win the presidential nomination.
“My supporters are passionate. They are committed. They have voted for me in great numbers across the country for many reasons,” Clinton said Monday on the campaign trail in California. “But among the reasons is their belief that having a woman president would make a great statement — a historic statement — about what kind of country we are, what we stand for. It’s really emotional.”
Now, Clinton will turn fully to face Trump in the November general election, a pivot that unofficially began last week with a withering speech on foreign policy in which she shredded Trump’s qualifications and temperament. Those attacks have continued this past weekend at appearances up and down California and have been received with unprecedented enthusiasm by her supporters.
“Donald Trump is not qualified to be president of the United States of America but we can’t just say that assume everybody understands it,” she said at a star-studded “She’s With Us” concert at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre Monday night. “We have to make the case and organize and mobilize.”
Clinton has faced an unexpectedly strong and increasingly contentious challenge from Sanders, and there is the possibility that the senator will keep battling her even now that she has effectively sewn up the nomination.
Indeed, on Monday, Sanders issued this statement: “It is unfortunate that the media, in a rush to judgement, are ignoring the Democratic National Committee’s clear statement that it is wrong to count the votes of superdelegates before they actually vote at the convention this summer.”
Before the polls opened Tuesday, Sanders’s campaign manager sent an email to supporters acknowledging that the reported delegate count for Clinton could suppress voter turnout. But the message asked for help in phoning California voters so that Sanders could “defy the pundits once more” and “shock the establishment.”
“We know that this race is going to carry on until the delegates cast ballots at the convention in Philadelphia,” said campaign manager Jeff Weaver. “We should let the voters decide who they want the Democratic nominee to be rather than having the media decide for them. I am asking you to continue to stand with Bernie in pushing for the political revolution.”
Tuesday marks the exact anniversary of the day eight years ago when Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination to then-Sen. Obama. The president could endorse Clinton as soon as this week, not waiting for the Democratic convention in July, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.
The president will decide for himself when to endorse, but “we may have a better sense of where the race is headed” after Tuesday’s voting, Earnest said.
An Obama endorsement would be a significant boost to Clinton as she seeks to unify Democrats after the difficult primaries. It would send a strong message to Sanders and his supporters that they should coalesce around Clinton, something Sanders has indicated he is far from ready to do.
“We’ll be talking about all of that in the next days, and I look forward to that,” Clinton said when asked what role Obama might play in her campaign. “Obviously, I’m excited about having the president’s support, because I have said throughout this campaign, I was honored to serve in the president’s Cabinet.”
Although Clinton has increasingly appeared to be campaigning more against Trump than Sanders, the success of her speech — and its reverberations on the campaign trail in California over the weekend — may help her against Sanders on Tuesday, too.
Even Clinton’s most ardent backers say the speech revealed a new candidate, one who seemed less cautious and more willing to push boundaries.
“It was almost like Hillary Clinton was finally being herself,” said Brigitte Hunley, 46, a Clinton volunteer in Solano County. “It was almost like she’s really getting into her own groove. It’s the real Hillary coming out.
“Being herself is so appealing,” Hunley added.
At times deadpan and at other times incredulous, Clinton delivered a cutting 35-minute assault on Trump on Thursday that read like a greatest hits of his most controversial comments.
It was a clear sign of how Clinton plans to defeat Trump — and overcome her own weaknesses, which include lingering questions about her judgment and trustworthiness and the fact that a majority of Americans say they don’t like her.
The business mogul has responded with a barrage of attacks on Twitter and in television interviews.
“Crooked Hillary Clinton has not held a news conference in more than 7 months,” Trump tweeted Monday. “Her record is so bad she is unable to answer tough questions!”
Aside from California and New Jersey, Democrats are holding primaries Tuesday in New Mexico, Montana and South Dakota and caucuses in North Dakota. Republicans are holding primaries in all those states except North Dakota, but their contests are largely symbolic because Trump has secured the delegate majority he needs to claim the nomination at his party’s convention next month. Now the Democrats’ contests have less meaning, as well.
Sanders plans to take stock of his campaign at his home in Burlington, Vt., after Tuesday’s primaries.
Clinton picked up more delegates in contests in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands over the weekend and leads the senator among both pledged delegates, those earned in voting contests, and superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who are free to support the candidate of their choice at the national convention.
It was superdelegates that put her over the top to gain the 2,383 needed to secure the nomination, according to the AP.
Sanders has argued that Clinton won’t have a lock because superdelegates don’t actually vote until the convention and could change their minds.
The AP said that the superdelegates for Clinton in its tally have told the news organization that they “unequivocally” support her.
Clinton’s superdelegate total has increased by 24 delegates since Sunday, according to the AP count, while Sanders’s support has scarcely budged.
The movement in Clinton’s direction underscores the vast challenge Sanders will have in flipping delegates to his side — a strategy he says he will pursue in hopes of capturing the nomination at the convention.
Speaking to reporters at a Hilton Garden Inn in a conference room overlooking the glimmering San Francisco Bay, Sanders insisted that he could still win over some superdelegates in the coming days.
“We are in private conversations,” Sanders said of his efforts to court party leaders and officials. “We’ve seen a little bit of movement,” he added, though he acknowledged that his latest superdelegate pickups number fewer than a half-dozen.
Wagner, Gearan reported from Washington. John Wagner in Washington and Robert Costa in San Francisco contributed to this report.