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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a primary election night campaign rally Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles with his wife Jill Biden, left, and his sister Valerie.

Chris Carlson/The Associated Press

Joe Biden was on track for a dramatic comeback on Super Tuesday, sweeping nine states including Texas, while Bernie Sanders captured California in a presidential nomination race that has suddenly shifted momentum, setting up an epic battle between the Democratic Party’s progressive and moderate lanes.

By late evening, Mr. Biden was projected to win North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Minnesota, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Texas. The leftist Mr. Sanders was set for a narrow win in California, the most delegate-rich state up for grabs on Tuesday. He easily took his home state of Vermont, along with Colorado and Utah. The two were running neck-and-neck in Maine.

The initial results from the 14 states that make up Super Tuesday have upended the Democratic race, dealing a blow to Mr. Sanders, whose progressive campaign had surged on strong finishes in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The 78-year-old Vermont Senator had based his well-funded grassroots campaign on mobilizing young and Latino voters in states like California and Texas.

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Instead, it was Mr. Biden, 77, who could claim a clear victory on Tuesday. The night delivered the former vice-president a remarkable turnaround. “I’m here to report we are very much alive,” Mr. Biden told supporters in Los Angeles on Tuesday in a speech briefly interrupted by protesters who stormed the podium. “Make no mistake about it, this campaign will send Donald Trump packing.”

Mr. Biden entered the race last year the undisputed front-runner, only to stumble badly in its opening months, with lacklustre debate performances and poor fundraising numbers, while Mr. Sanders’ victories in early-voting states vaulted him to the top of some national polls.

Everything changed over the past 72 hours. First, Mr. Biden won South Carolina in a landslide. Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer all quit the race following the South Carolina primary. Mr. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Ms. Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, both threw their support behind Mr. Biden, prompting an avalanche of endorsements as the party establishment coalesced around the former vice-president. Mr. Biden appeared to get major last-minute boosts in Minnesota and Texas thanks to endorsements from Ms. Klobuchar and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg ended the night on track to finish third in California and claiming victory only in American Samoa, a remote territory of 50,000 people in the Pacific Ocean. The billionaire was set to earn delegates in several states after spending close to US$500-million campaigning heavily in Super Tuesday states as a moderate challenger to Mr. Biden. Several media reported the Bloomberg LP founder was planning to reassess the future of his campaign in coming days.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s future was also in doubt after a third-place finish in her home state behind Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders. The loss increases pressure on her to drop out and allow progressive voters to coalesce around Mr. Sanders.

The results of Super Tuesday could effectively winnow the once-sprawling and historically diverse candidate field to two white, septuagenarian career politicians representing opposite sides of the party’s ideological divide. And it could widen the chasm between the party’s moderate and progressive voters.

The narrowing contest has also raised the prospect that neither Mr. Sanders nor Mr. Biden would win an absolute majority of delegates, leading to a contested national nominating convention in the summer, and a months-long battle for the right to take on President Donald Trump in the fall. Tuesday’s vote was set to hand Mr. Biden the most delegates of the race, with Mr. Sanders a close second.

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Despite a disappointing finish in states like Texas and Maine, where he was expected to perform well, Mr. Sanders sounded triumphant when he addressed supporters in Vermont on Tuesday. “Tonight I tell you with absolute confidence: We’re going to win the Democratic nomination and we are going to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of this country,” he said. “You cannot beat Trump with the same old, same old kind of politics.”

Mr. Biden’s popularity with black voters, largely based on his association with former president Barack Obama, appeared key to his victories across the South. African-Americans are the party’s most solid voting demographic and motivating them will be key to winning in November.

Super Tuesday is the single largest day of the primaries, with one third of all delegates at stake. It marks a new phase in the race, where candidates begin to focus on the math required to get the 1,991 delegates required to clinch the nomination on the first ballot. Delegates are awarded proportionally, meaning that a strong second-place finish in a state still results in a significant delegate haul. The results give Mr. Biden in particular new momentum heading into crucial upcoming races in states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois later this month.

Both Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Warren had little hope of winning the contest outright, but were seeking to amass enough delegates to emerge as a compromise candidate in the event of a convention deadlock. “We proved we can win the voters who will decide the general election, and isn’t that what this is all about?” Mr. Bloomberg told supporters in West Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday night.

Mr. Bloomberg skipped all four of the early state primaries and caucuses to focus on Super Tuesday, using his personal fortune to blanket the states with ads and flood them with paid staffers. He has pledged to continue funding his campaign infrastructure through November if he fails to win the nomination, with that support most likely to go to a moderate challenger like Mr. Biden.

Despite the increasingly poor results, Ms. Warren vowed to fight on Tuesday at a Detroit rally. Michigan votes next week. “What I see happening is a lot of folks trying to turn voting into some complicated strategy,” she exhorted the crowd. “Cast a vote from your heart.”

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If no candidate wins a majority of delegates, the Democrats would see their first contested convention since 1952. Super delegates, mostly party officials, would be allowed to vote on a second ballot; they are not thought to favour Mr. Sanders, giving more moderate candidates an edge in such a scenario.

The party has proven deeply divided between progressive voters who primarily back Mr. Sanders, a self-described socialist promising to abolish private health insurance in favour of a government-run system and make university tuition-free, and moderates.

Some of Mr. Sanders’s supporters have said they will not vote Democratic in the fall if the party nominates a moderate. The establishment, however, fears moderate voters will abandon the Democrats if they nominate Mr. Sanders, and that his candidacy would damage the chances of congressional candidates in swing districts.

Mr. Sanders has argued that only his big-ticket promises will motivate young and working-class voters, as well as people who do not typically vote, to get to the polls. His rallies have seen the most raucous crowds, and he has both raised more funds and been better organized than Mr. Biden, thanks to a loyal cohort of volunteers and small-dollar donors.

Mr. Biden has traded heavily on his role in Mr. Obama’s administration to appeal to black voters.

Radio, television and online ads ahead of Super Tuesday barely mentioned any of Mr. Biden’s campaign promises but instead emphasized that he was Mr. Obama’s “loyal vice-president” and “had President Obama’s back.” One ad simply showed stock footage of Mr. Obama praising Mr. Biden at a White House press conference.​

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