INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton rolled up wins in Northeastern states on Tuesday in a major show of strength and immediately turned their fire on each other in a possible preview of a general election matchup.
The New York billionaire easily defeated rivals John Kasich and Ted Cruz in all five states that held contests, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware, with a margin of victory rivalling that of his home state of New York a week ago. He was on a path to winning the vote in every county in each state.
Clinton, already in control of the Democratic race, defeated challenger Bernie Sanders in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Her only loss of the night was to Sanders in Rhode Island.
The race now pivots immediately to Indiana, which is shaping up to be Cruz's best, and perhaps last, chance to slow Trump's momentum toward the Republican nomination for the Nov. 8 presidential election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama.
If Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, can win a large share of the state's 57 delegates on May 3, it will boost the chances that Trump will not be able to amass the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination before the party's convention in July. That could give Cruz a shot at convincing delegates to back him for president instead.
A loss to Trump in Indiana would effectively cripple Cruz's already faltering bid, and increase pressure on the party to rally around Trump as the prospective nominee.
Katie Packer, head of the anti-Trump political-action committee Our Principles, said her organisation would be active in the state with "TV, mail, phones, digital, all of it."
"We're going to be playing in a lot of different congressional districts," Packer said.
The Club for Growth, a conservative pro-business group, has bought $1.5 million worth of anti-Trump TV ads in the state.
Both groups worked to hand Trump a defeat at the hands of Cruz earlier this month in Wisconsin.
"Tonight, this campaign moves back to more favourable terrain," Cruz said in Knightstown, Indiana on Tuesday.
'DEAL ME IN'
Back on the East Coast, Trump and Clinton used victory rallies to snipe at each other in the kind of back and forth that will take place should they win their party's presidential nominations and face off in the general election campaign.
"I think she's a flawed candidate and she's going to be easy to beat," Trump told a news conference at New York's Trump Tower.
Trump, who is to give a foreign policy speech in Washington on Wednesday, criticized Clinton's record as secretary of state and her vote as a U.S. senator from New York in support of the Iraq war. He said her only advantage was as a woman seeking to become the first female U.S. president.
"Frankly if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote," he said.
Clinton, in a victory speech in Philadelphia, took aim at Trump for accusing her of trying to "play the woman card."
"Well if fighting for women's healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in," she said to cheers.
Of 118 committed delegates available on Tuesday, the Associated Press said Trump took 105, raising his total delegates to 950. Kasich, the Ohio governor, won five, all from Rhode Island, and Cruz one, with seven delegates still to be assigned. Pennsylvania's 54 unbound delegates will become clearer later.
Projecting confidence, Trump said it was time for Cruz and Kasich to get out of the race so the party can unify behind him. He also urged Sanders' voters to support him.
"I consider myself the presumptive nominee," he said, adding later: "As far as I'm concerned, this thing is over."
Clinton's strong showing in the Democratic race added to the pressure on Sanders to get out of the race or ease his criticism of her.
In her speech, Clinton gave a nod to Sanders and spoke of the need for party unity.
"Whether you support Senator Sanders or you support me, there is much more that unites us than divides us," she said.
Clinton's victories on Tuesday gave her 2,141 delegates, according to the AP, pushing her closer to the 2,383 needed for the nomination. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid told reporters earlier on Tuesday he did not think Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, had a realistic path to winning the nomination.
Sanders, in a speech in Huntington, West Virginia, and a subsequent statement, showed no signs of getting out of the race. He is expected to campaign in Indiana.
"The people in every state in this country should have the right to determine who they want as president and what the agenda of the Democratic Party should be. That's why we are in this race until the last vote is cast," he said in his statement.