DETROIT: Joe Biden took an early lead over rival Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential contest in Michigan on Tuesday and was projected to capture Missouri and Mississippi as six states made their choices in the race to challenge US President Donald Trump.
The race in Michigan was too close to call as the last polls closed in the state, television networks and Edison Research said, but Biden led Sanders by 53% to 42% with 26% of precincts reporting in the state, the day’s biggest prize.
Biden, the former vice-president under Barack Obama, had been a heavy favourite over Sanders in Mississippi and Missouri and was projected to win easily based on exit polls and early results.
Polls also closed in North Dakota with no early results. The polls close later in Washington and Idaho.
Biden, 77, was looking to take a big step toward the nomination to face the Republican Trump in the Nov 3 election after becoming the front-runner with a series of sweeping wins over Sanders in last week’s Super Tuesday contests.
Sanders, a democratic socialist and US senator from Vermont, hoped an upset win in Michigan would keep his dwindling White House hopes alive.
Sanders, 78, won a stunning upset over Hillary Clinton in Michigan in 2016 that ensured a long nominating fight – something Biden hopes to avoid this time.
A total of 352 of the nearly 4,000 delegates to July’s Democratic convention were up for grabs in the six states voting on Tuesday, with Michigan the biggest with 125 delegates.
A Biden breakthrough in Michigan, along with his big victories in Missouri and Mississippi, could prove too much for Sanders to overcome. By the end of March, about two-thirds of the delegates will be allocated.
Biden was powered to the early victories on Tuesday by strong support from a broad coalition of groups, including women, African Americans, those aged 45 and older, and all but the very liberal, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research.
As in earlier states, Biden’s support was especially strong among black voters. In Mississippi, where two-thirds of the electorate was African-American, Biden won more than eight of every 10 black voters.
Washington and Idaho also held contests on Tuesday. There was no immediate projection for North Dakota, and polls close later in the three other states.
As fears spread about the coronavirus, voters in Michigan said they trusted Biden more than Sanders to handle a major crisis, according to exit polls.
The polling in Michigan showed about half of voters more trusted Biden in a crisis, compared to one-third who more trusted Sanders, Biden’s last viable rival in the race.
In Washington, the state hit hardest by coronavirus and the second-largest state to vote on Tuesday, eight in 10 voters voiced concern about the outbreak’s effects, with a plurality supporting Biden, according to the Edison Research exit polls.
Both candidates called off planned rallies in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, which has rattled markets and prompted Democrats to criticize the Trump administration’s response.
The campaigns said they were following guidance from Ohio public health officials. Until now, Democratic candidates as well as Trump, 73, have largely continued to hold large-scale events despite the outbreak.
Since last week’s Super Tuesday romps, Biden has roared into the national lead in polling and delegates, knocked out all remaining viable rivals except Sanders and swept up a wave of endorsements from former contenders such as Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
Biden, who has touted the Obama administration’s decision to bail out the auto industry, made a morning campaign stop at Detroit’s first new auto assembly plant in decades, owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.
“Unions built the country,” Biden shouted through a bullhorn. “You’re the best damn workers in the world.”
But his visit was marred by a clash with one worker who suggested he planned to confiscate Americans’ guns. Biden, whose propensity to veer off-script occasionally causes self-inflicted wounds, snapped at the worker using an obscenity.
Sanders has attacked Biden for supporting international trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is unpopular among many of Michigan’s workers who say it has cost the state jobs.
As Biden left the plant, video showed some workers chanting, “Trump!”