Bernie Sanders looked to take command of the Democratic presidential race as voting on the nominating campaign's biggest day got underway on Tuesday, while top rival Joe Biden aimed to gain ground by muscling aside upstart Michael Bloomberg and consolidating moderate support.
In Super Tuesday contests across 14 states, from tiny Maine in the East to the delegate-rich prize of California in the West, the Democratic battle to find a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election becomes a national competition for the first time.
The rush of primary elections could provide some clarity at last in a muddled White House race that has seen several candidates rise and fall, leaving many Democratic voters torn and uncertain.
Sanders, the front-runner and a progressive senator from Vermont, hopes to take a huge step toward the nomination on Super Tuesday, when more than one-third of the delegates who will pick the eventual nominee in July will be up for grabs.
Trump continues to double down on his insults of Bloomberg in the race and attacking the Democratic establishment that he claims is "rigging" the process against Sanders. Ahead of Tuesday voting, Trump tweeted, "They are staging a coup against Bernie!"
But Biden has emerged as Sanders' top threat. The former vice president's big win in South Carolina on Saturday generated a flood of endorsements from party officials worried that Sanders' democratic socialist proposals to restructure the economy would doom the party in November.
Biden gained fresh momentum on the eve of Super Tuesday as moderate presidential rivals Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, endorsed him after withdrawing from the race.
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Buttigieg and Klobuchar endorsed Biden at rallies in Dallas on Monday.
Peter Victoratos, a 23-year-old software engineer voting in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday morning, decided on Monday night to vote for Biden. He said the endorsements of Biden by some of his rivals helped him make up his mind.
“I like them all,” he said.
Biden's goal on Tuesday will be to stay within reach of Sanders in delegates, giving him a chance to make up ground as the race moves on.
Tennessee is one of the Super Tuesday states where Biden hopes to do well. But a powerful, deadly tornado in the Nashville area delayed the opening of polls there by an hour, and forced officials to relocate some polling locations.
Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, remains a wild card as he joins the competition for the first time. The moderate skipped the first four contests and spent more than a half-billion dollars of his own money to bombard Super Tuesday and later voting states with ads, but has seen his poll numbers slip after a poor first debate.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive ally of Sanders, also remains in the running and could score a victory in her home state of Massachusetts. Opinion polls show her trailing in other states, leaving her campaign hopes uncertain.
The pace of the Democratic race begins to accelerate after Super Tuesday, with 11 more states voting by the end of March. By then, nearly two-thirds of the total delegates will have been allotted.
The first polls will close in Vermont and Virginia at 7 p.m. EST (midnight GMT). The last will close in California at 8 p.m. PST (0400 GMT Wednesday).
Sanders headed into Super Tuesday with a 60-54 delegate advantage over Biden after the first four contests in the state-by-state nominating fight. Sanders managed a virtual tie with Buttigieg in Iowa and wins in New Hampshire and Nevada.
At least 1,991 delegates to the party's convention in July are needed to win the nomination outright.
Sanders has focused heavily on rolling up big margins in liberal California, which has 415 delegates available. He leads there in opinion polls and has heavily outspent Biden on ads and in building a campaign organization.
He also leads Biden by a smaller margin in polls in Texas, the second-biggest prize. His strength with Hispanics should pay dividends in that state, where Latinos are one-third of the Democratic electorate.
Biden, whose blowout win in South Carolina affirmed his popularity with black voters, will look for wins in five states where African Americans make up at least one-quarter of the Democratic electorate: Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Other states voting on Tuesday are Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Utah. The U.S. territory of American Samoa is holding a caucus contest, and Democrats living abroad began voting on Tuesday in a primary set to continue until March 10.
The next contests on March 10 will be in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington state.