Not even close

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters as she arrives to speak to supporters at her election night watch party for the South Carolina Democratic primary in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

COLUMBIA — Invigorated by a black vote that rejected her eight years ago for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton breezed to an easy win in the South Carolina Democratic primary, burying a challenge by Sen. Bernie Sanders who was forced to concede the state early and seek his battles elsewhere.

Clinton’s victory in the first-in-the-South primary was across the board in a state where her ties — and those of her famous husband, former President Bill Clinton — go back decades.

More importantly, Clinton secured her role as the first choice among minority voters heading into Super Tuesday and at a time when Democrats nationally are looking to a possible November match-up against Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

Saturday’s results represent Clinton’s widest margin of victory so far as she used South Carolina to separate herself from Sanders. The pair finished narrowly apart in both Iowa and Nevada, while Sanders won by a large margin in New Hampshire.

This time the win was resounding as Clinton collected 73 percent of the vote to Sanders’ 26 percent out of some 367,000 ballots cast, according to unofficial results. Returns were partial from Greenville County.

The former secretary of state appeared at the University of South Carolina campus less than an hour after the race was called to thank the crowd and fire a shot across the bow at Trump.

“Despite what you hear, we don’t need to make America great again,” she said. “America has never stopped being great. But we do need to make America whole again. Instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers.”

Clinton won among black voters, most women and voters age 30 and older, according to early exit poll results released by The Associated Press.

Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist and independent senator from Vermont, did best among young voters, independents who opted to take part in the Democrats’ primary and most white voters.

Sanders essentially gave up competing in the state as of mid-week, leaving South Carolina to instead campaign in the Midwest. While he returned to the state briefly Friday, he was absent Saturday.

“Let me be clear on one thing tonight,” Sanders said in his concession statement. “This campaign is just beginning. We won a decisive victory in New Hampshire. She won a decisive victory in South Carolina. Now it’s on to Super Tuesday.”

Sanders had campaigned on a message of social justice, taking on Wall Street abuses and calling for public college education to be tuition-free.

Also getting votes Saturday were former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Chicago businessman Willie Wilson.

Exit polls from the AP and television networks showed 6 in 10 voters in the primary were African-American. About 7 in 10 said they wanted the next president to continue on the same course as Obama’s current policies. Only about 20 percent said they favored a more liberal course of action or one in line with what Sanders most advocated.

Eight years ago Clinton lost badly against Obama among South Carolina Democrats — a 55 percent to 27 percent margin. This time she used an aggressive ground game that included a busy schedule of stops in the last week as she courted women’s groups, black churches and organized labor.

Her campaign also focused on encouraging early absentee voting and endorsements from leading national and South Carolina figures to carve out her win. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s only Democratic congressman, who represents the black-majority 6th District, endorsed her a week ago and appeared in a TV ad for her. Clinton also traveled the state with mothers of young black men who’d been killed at the hands of police to bolster her message of pursuing criminal justice reform.

“Breaking down barriers means we also have to face the reality of systemic racism that more than half a century after Rosa Parks sat and Dr. King marched and John Lewis bled still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind,” Clinton said during her victory address.

Tomica Richardson and her family, including six children ranging in age from 6 to 13, traveled from Charleston to see Clinton speak in Columbia.

“I like Hillary and the fact that I’m ready for a woman to be president,” she said. “I want to see what a woman can do in office. It’s not only a man’s world.”

Richardson said it was important to have her children attend the rally so they can gain an interest in politics from a young age. “A lot of young people don’t vote,” she said. “If you’re not going to be part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.”

In Charleston, Sanders supporters met at the Pour House music venue on James Island to watch the returns come in.

“I came down knowing we would lose South Carolina and intent on having conversations with South Carolinians to break through the illusion that Clinton represents their interests,” said Mark Vain, a Sanders supporter from New York. “It’s the most interesting election of my lifetime.”

Robert Behre contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551.