Bernie Sanders has won the Nevada caucuses by an apparent landslide, propelling himself into solid frontrunner status among Democrats and moving his campaign one step closer to taking on Donald Trump in November.
Less than six months after suffering a heart attack in the state as he was campaigning, the 78-year-old senator was forecast a massive win on the back of momentum driven by the support of young people and Latino voters.
Early results showed Mr Sanders with double the number of votes of his nearest rival.
Speaking before cheering supporters in San Antonio, Texas, where he had already moved on to campaign ahead of Super Tuesday, he repeated his criticism that Mr Trump was “a pathological liar running a corrupt administration”.
He vowed his supporters could see real change if they continued to show up in the kind of numbers that had allowed him to make history by winning the popular vote in each three of the states to have voted – a first for the Democratic Party.
“We won the Iowa caucus. We won the New Hampshire primary. Now, we have won the Nevada caucus,” he declared, to roars and cheers.
“So let me thank the people of Nevada for their support. In Nevada we have put together a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition that not only swept Nevada, but will sweep the country.”
Votes are still being formally counted but Mr Sanders' lead is so impressive that it is clear he will go on to win the first state in the West to vote.
A fight quickly broke out over second place among Sanders' Democratic rivals.
Former vice president Joe Biden's campaign was quick to insist they had the second highest number of votes, while Pete Buttigieg's team did the same.
Regardless, the result will be a welcome relief to Mr Biden, who has been struggling to keep his campaign going.
In an awkward moment on Saturday night, he went on camera to insist his campaign was 'still alive' but the crew cut him off before he could finish.
“I know we don’t have the final results yet, but I feel really good,” he said. “You put me in a position, you know the press is ready to declare people dead quickly, but we’re alive and we’re coming back and we’re going to win.”
He added: “I think we’re in the position now to move on in a way that we haven’t been until this moment. I think we are going to go, we’re going to win in South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday and we are on our way.”
Buttigieg, having come joint first in Iowa and a close second to Mr Sanders in New Hampshire has been struggling to maintain momentum. He looked set to at least finish ahead of Elizabeth Warren in fourth slot, and Amy Klobuchar in fifth.
Mr Buttigieg, whose campaign has faced repeated questions as to whether its candidate could win the support of people of colour, warned against Mr Sanders’ nomination, even as he issued his congratulations.
“I congratulate senator Sanders on a strong showing today,” Mr Buttigieg said. “But before we rush to nominate senator Sander. Let us take a sober look at what is at stake.”
He added: “We can prioritise either ideological purity or inclusive victory. We can either call people names online or we can call them into our movement.”
Elizabeth Warren, who enjoyed a popularity bounce on the back of a strong debate peformance, didn't look close to breaking into the top two spots. On Saturday night she took her campaign to Seattle where she congratulated Bernie on his win.
“The race has been called. Bernie has won, congratulations Bernie,” she said, before insisting her fanbase is growing 'everywhere'.
Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg's campaign team was also keen to reiterate concerns of Sanders becoming the nominee, and blamed the 'fragmented field' for Mr Sanders' success.
"This is a candidate who just declared war on the so-called “Democratic Establishment. We are going to need Independents AND Republicans to defeat Trump – attacking your own party is no way to get started. As Mike says, if we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base – like Senator Sanders – it will be a fatal error."
Nevada, which has a Latino population of around 30 per cent, is seen a major test of candidates ability to win over voters of colour. Next week, South Carolina, with its large African American population, hold its primary.
One of the little told stories of the 2020 race has been the way Mr Sanders has built support among people of colour over the last four years. That has particularly been true among Latino voters.
In Nevada he had a huge ground operation, with up to 250 paid members of staff, along with countless volunteers.
The Vermont senator said in recent months, his campaign in Nevada had knocked on 500,000 doors, no small feat in a state with a population of 3 million.
Democratic Party officials in the state also no doubt sighed a huge sigh of relief after the poll went off without a hitch, a marked contrast to the voting debacle three weeks ago in Iowa.
Despite Mr Sanders’ success, he remains some way from being able to feel comfortable that he is going to secure the nomination. On March 3, so-called Super Tuesday, more than 12 states hold their primaries. That will be the first indication of how much genuine support Michael Bloomberg has been able to secure with his non-traditional campaign, on which he has already spent $400m of his own money on political advertising.
Of those to offer congratulations, of a kind, was Mr Trump.
“Looks like Crazy Bernie is doing well in the Great State of Nevada. Biden & the rest look weak, & no way Mini Mike can restart his campaign after the worst debate performance in the history of Presidential Debates,” he tweeted. “Congratulations Bernie, & don’t let them take it away from you!”
Additional reporting by agencies
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