COLUMBIA, S.C. --Hillary Clinton hoped to cement her position as the Democratic front-runner with a big win in Saturday's South Carolina presidential primary, while rival Bernie Sanders moved on before the votes were even counted to focus on next week's Super Tuesday contests.
The Democrats' contrasting approaches underscored their broader aims and possibilities heading into the delegate-rich March 1 races. Clinton is looking to win by large margins in Southern states with large black populations, while Sanders wants to score victories in the Midwest and Northeast and stay close to Clinton in the South to avoid a blowout in the delegate race.
As Democrats in South Carolina were heading to the polls, Sanders was speaking to about 10,000 people at a Formula One racetrack near Austin, Texas.
"On Super Tuesday the state that is going to be voting for the most delegates is the great state of Texas," he said. "If all of you come out to vote and you bring your friends and your neighbors and your co-workers, we are going to win here in Texas."
Clinton made a stop in Alabama Saturday before returning to Columbia, South Carolina's capital, for what her campaign hoped would be an evening victory party. Polls were to close at 7 p.m.
According to early exit polls, black voters accounted for 6 in 10 Democratic primary voters. In last week's South Carolina Republican primary, 96 percent of voters were white.
For Clinton, a win in South Carolina would help wipe away bitter memories of her 2008 primary loss to Barack Obama in the first-in-the-South contest, and establish her as the firm favorite among black voters, a crucial segment of the Democratic electorate.
As Clinton's race with Sanders has grown tighter, she's moved to fully embrace Obama, who remains popular with Democrats and particularly black voters. Early exit polls showed 7 in 10 voters want the next president to continue Obama's policies.
The exit polls were conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.
Among early voters in South Carolina, Alicia Newman, a 31-year-old elementary school teacher from Greenville, said she was torn but ultimately went for Clinton.
"I don't think Bernie has a shot in a national election, and this election is too important," she said. "With all the debates, I think Bernie has helped prepare Hillary for November."
But Birgitta Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, said she believed Clinton will "say anything to get votes," while Sanders "deals with structural issues rather than talking points" on education and other issues important to her.
Sanders has energized his voters, particularly young people, with his impassioned calls for breaking up Wall Street banks and making tuition free at public colleges and universities. But he knew his prospects in South Carolina were grim.
The senator from Vermont, where just about 1 percent of the population is black, lacks Clinton's deep and longstanding connections to the African-American community. He tried to broaden his economic inequality message and touch on issues such as incarceration rates and criminal justice reform, but he struggled to gain traction here.
In 2008, black voters made up 55 percent of the electorate in South Carolina's Democratic primary, according to exit polls. Clinton lost the state overwhelmingly to Obama in a heated contest in which her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was seen by some as questioning the legitimacy of the black presidential contender.
But South Carolina voters appeared ready to forgive.
The former president has been well-received by voters as he's traveled the state campaigning for his wife. Hillary Clinton also received the endorsement of South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the influential black lawmaker who stayed neutral in the 2008 primary but was critical of the former president's comments.
This year, Clinton's campaign has seen South Carolina as an important jumpstart heading into a busy March. More than half of the delegates up for grabs in the Democratic race are on the table in the next month.
Next Tuesday's contests are particularly important. Democrats will vote in 11 states and American Samoa, with 865 delegates to be decided.
While Sanders has the money to stay in the race deep into the spring, Clinton's campaign sees a chance to build enough of a delegate lead to put the race out of reach during the sprint through March.
Going into South Carolina, Clinton had just a one-delegate edge over Sanders after her narrow win in Iowa, her sweeping loss in New Hampshire and a five-point victory in Nevada. However, she also has a massive lead among superdelegates, the Democratic Party leaders who can vote for the candidate of their choice at this summer's national convention, regardless of how their states vote.
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.
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