REUTERS - Gathering speed toward winning the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton did not wait long after a streak of wins on Super Tuesday to gird for battle with Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
The former first lady won 7 of 11 states up for grabs on Tuesday, sweeping the South and creating more distance between her and rival Bernie Sanders in the race to represent the Democratic Party at the Nov. 8 election for the White House.
The wins, which include the heavily populated state of Texas, mean she can turn an eye toward billionaire reality TV star Trump, who also won heavily on Tuesday.
In another good sign for Clinton, her fundraisers say donors are eager to fund her campaign into the general election.
"Hillary will be the nominee, and now she needs to start focusing on taking on Trump," said Dane Strother, an unaligned Washington DC-based Democratic strategist.
On Tuesday night, Clinton took aim at Trump's reputation for spewing insults at his opponents, and repeated an attack on the real estate mogul's proposal to build a 1,000-mile wall along the border with Mexico.
"The stakes in this election have never been higher and the rhetoric we're hearing on the other side has never been lower," she said during a rally in Miami after she won in several states.
"Trying to divide America between us and them is wrong."
Clinton's wins give her 527 delegates to the Democratic nominating convention, to Sanders' 325, according to a New York Times delegate count early on Wednesday. A Democratic candidate needs 2,383 delegates to win.
Jim Manley, a Washington-based Democratic strategist who supports Clinton, said her move to swiftly target Trump was necessary but potentially dangerous for her.
"She has to start looking toward the general election, but it's not without its risks," he said. He said Trump would strike back: "He'll go right in the gutter."
Trump has frequently criticized Clinton's handling of crises like Iraq and Syria during her four years as secretary of state, and suggested he will dredge up old scandals involving former President Bill Clinton.
Some Clinton fundraisers said the campaign is noticing renewed interest among donors to support her beyond primary season. Her campaign, they add, appears more open to accepting that cash, an indication they believe she will win the nomination.
"I think they are taking a shift towards the general (election)," said Tom Sacks-Wilner, a member of Clinton's national finance committee. "The finance department's not objecting to it at this point," he said.
Campaign donors are allowed to give $2,700 to an individual candidate for the primary phase of an election, and another $2,700 for the general phase, for a grand total of $5,400.
Another Clinton fundraiser, in Los Angeles, said that he has had more donors in his area ask him about giving money for the fight beyond California, and he added that the recent victories also make it easier to bring in campaign volunteers.
The upbeat attitude marks a shift from three weeks ago, when Clinton's campaign was bruised by Sanders' resounding win in New Hampshire, and a close second place finish in Iowa, where he carried a large proportion of the youth vote.
The shift became more pronounced last week after Clinton's victory in South Carolina, where she enjoyed broad support among African-American voters - a bloc Sanders has struggled to draw with his democratic socialist platform.
Nationally, support for Clinton has increased since just before the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary.
Nearly 53 percent of Democrats said they'd vote for Clinton, compared with 43 percent for the U.S. Senator from Vermont, according to the Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll from Feb. 26 to March 1. They were in a dead heat earlier in the month.
Sanders has also worked to position himself as a general election candidate against Trump. His campaign sent out a statement on Tuesday touting his $42.7 million fundraising haul in February.
"Donald Trump is going to have plenty of money to compete in November," said Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager. "It's important that our nominee be able to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to defeat the Republicans in November."
One group tied to the Democratic Party's progressive wing said it would be wrong to write off Sanders regardless of Tuesday's results - in part because he polls better in whiter northern states that come later in the election cycle.
"Washington's professional pundits were wrong when they claimed the fight for the Democratic nomination was over before Bernie Sanders got into the race, they're wrong if they claim this fight is over now," Charles Chamberlain, Democracy for America's executive director, said in a statement.
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