By ReutersMarch 1, 2016|7:28 pm
A voter fills out her ballot to vote in the Super Tuesday election at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia March 1, 2016.
WASHINGTON/WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton scored early primary wins on Tuesday in Georgia, CNN projected, as the two presidential front-runners looked to take command of their party nominating battles on the 2016 campaign's biggest night of voting.
Georgia was one of 12 states voting on Super Tuesday, and opinion polls showed Trump leading in nearly all of them on the way to a possible big night that would intensify worries among Republican leaders who fear the billionaire could inflict long-term damage on the party.
Exit polls indicated that Virginia and Vermont were too close to call for Republicans as balloting ended in the two states, networks said.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, also was projected to win Virginia and hoped to take a big step toward wrapping up her nomination fight with rival Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist U.S. senator from Vermont.
Sanders was projected by ABC and MSNBC to win his home state of Vermont, one of five states he was hoping to capture on Tuesday.
Super Tuesday is the biggest single day of state-by-state contests to select party nominees for the Nov. 8 election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama. Voting stretches from eastern states to Texas and Minnesota, with the first polls closing at 7 p.m. EST in Vermont, Virginia and Georgia.
Trump has worried many in the Republican establishment with proposals such as building a wall along the U.S. southern border with Mexico, deporting 11 million illegal immigrants and slapping a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
But while his campaign has confounded many Republican leaders, the New York real estate developer cites his high poll numbers as proof he is not dividing the party but expanding its ranks. He preached unity as he looked beyond the day's voting to campaign in Ohio, which votes on March 15.
With a string of victories on Tuesday, Trump would expand his strong lead over U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Ohio Governor John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Opinion polls showed Cruz could pull out a win in his home state of Texas. Voting with his wife in Houston, Cruz said he hoped Republicans would see a narrower field emerge on Wednesday.
"For any candidate that wakes up tomorrow morning who hasn't won any states … I think it's time to start thinking about coming together and unifying and presenting a clear choice," said Cruz, the only Republican to win a state contest besides Trump to date.
Even as Trump advances, many Republican Party leaders do not support his positions and believe he would be easily defeated in November by Clinton if she became the Democratic nominee.
The crossfire between Trump and establishment Republicans threatened to rip the party apart at a time when it will need to generate momentum behind a prospective nominee. That worries some Republican strategists looking ahead to the nominating convention in July.
"If Trump continues winning, disappointed party elites will need to reconcile with supporting the party nominee," said Tim Albrecht, a Republican strategist in Iowa.
On the Democratic side, opinion polls showed Clinton, who has won three of the first four Democratic contests, with a big lead in six Southern states that have large blocs of black voters, who have been slow to warm to Sanders.
In addition to his home state of Vermont, Sanders had been aiming for wins in four other states on Tuesday – neighboring Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Colorado.