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Politics

Analysis:: With New York wins, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump aim at November

Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks after winning the New York primary Tuesday.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

With swamping victories in New York, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have turned to their next target: the general election.

Trump dispensed Tuesday night with the insults he usually flings, replacing his typical castigation of “Lyin’ Ted” with a rare respectful reference to the night’s third-place GOP finisher as “Sen.” Ted Cruz. And with more discipline than he has demonstrated for much of the presidential campaign, he hewed in his brief remarks to the topic of job creation.

Clinton delivered a victory speech that included only a muted and unnamed reference to her Democratic primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. Instead, she repeatedly took on Trump, dismissing his contention that America needed to be made great again as she made an emotional genuflection to its exceptionalism.

Neither candidate clinched a nomination Tuesday, but with their victories, both Trump and Clinton made it exponentially harder for their competitors to wrest the prize from them. So their attention turned to winning over constituencies that have yet to warm to them.

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Trump continues to face the risk of entering the July GOP convention with fewer delegates than are needed for a coronation and with substantial elements of his party in revolt against him as their leader. They — and voters in upcoming states — were the intended audience for the more gracious and reined-in version of Trump who accepted his win in New York.

Clinton continues to perform weakly with some groups of voters who would be key to a victory in November, despite her firm lead among delegates. Although it would take a collapse in coming states for her to lose the nomination, the voters who have eluded her grasp — particularly young and to some extent white male Democrats — were among her targets Tuesday night.

Both candidates, as residents of New York, needed the wins. But their dramatic margins of victory were also important, both in terms of granting them delegates and shredding the cloak of uncertainty that Sanders, Cruz and the fifth presidential candidate, Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have attempted to cast over the presidential contest.

Both Trump and Clinton also are well-positioned to follow up their New York wins with victories in the states that vote Tuesday — Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware.

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In Clinton’s case, victory in New York was particularly sweet because she was outspent by Sanders more than 2 to 1 on the New York airwaves. And it came in a state that reflects the diversity of the Democratic Party better than many of the states won by Sanders.

To this point in the race, momentum has come haltingly for front-runner Clinton; every surge of hers has been followed by a surge, with fewer delegates collected, for Sanders. The New York contest was the most bitter competition between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Sanders, with each calling the other’s judgment into question and each angrily denouncing the other in Thursday’s debate.

Considering that Sanders’ voters already are more reluctant to back Clinton as the nominee than Clinton’s supporters are to back him, the danger was a deepened breach. Clinton took that on directly early in her remarks to New York voters.

“It’s humbling that you’d trust me with the awesome responsibilities that await our next president,” she said. “And to all the people who supported Sen. Sanders, I believe that there is much more that unites us than divides us.”

Her only slight at Sanders was delivered like an inside joke. It was a recasting of a line with which she had repeatedly flayed Sanders during last week’s debate.

“Under the bright lights of New York, we have seen that it is not enough to diagnose problems,” she said. “You have to explain how you would actually solve the problem. That’s what we have to do.”

But that line could just as easily be tailored for Trump, her hoped-for opponent in the fall and someone who has forwarded fewer specific proposals than any other candidate this year.

After a litany of goals that are the reverse of Trump’s positions — such as immigration measures and a minimum wage hike — she pledged to push for them “through the general election and every day after that.”

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“We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country,” she said with a nod to Trump’s negative take on current conditions in the U.S. “And no matter what anyone tells you and what you might hear from others running for president, that is still true today. America is great and we can do great things if we do them together.”

Trump, for his part, personified the turn his campaign has taken in recent days as it added veteran Republican strategists to a team largely made up of aides involved in their first presidential effort. The candidate’s sober remarks Tuesday seemed meant to put an emphatic end to weeks in which he was outgunned by Cruz in winning delegates at post-election conventions, and in which he has battled with national GOP leaders.

He pointed Tuesday to business leaders in the crowd gathered at Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue and said they would be part of his team if he is elected. With only a brief mention of one topic that has drawn much controversy — illegal immigration — he pivoted toward the argument that served as his original selling point to the voters: that he is best suited to reinvigorate the economy.

“We have problems everywhere you look,” he said. “We are going to solve those problems. One of the big problems is the economy and jobs — and that is my wheelhouse.”

“We are going to be so strong again, we’re going to be really, legitimately, so great again and I just can’t wait,” he said at another point.

Democratic and Republican voters held very different views on the impact thus far of their contentious primary battles.

According to exit polls of New York voters, 4 in 10 Republican voters said the race had “energized” the party while the remaining 6 in 10 said it had “divided” the party. Democrats had the opposite view: About 7 in 10 said the party had been energized by the battle between Clinton and Sanders, while 3 in 10 said it was divisive.

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Leery of being considered divisive, both front-runners shied away Tuesday from suggesting that their opponents leave the race. The departure dance is far more subtle.

Each alluded to their strengthened standing. Trump declared that Cruz was “just about mathematically eliminated” from contention, although Cruz’s best potential option has always been at a free-wheeling open convention. Clinton went further than she has in the past in asserting she’s closing in on the nomination.

“The race for the Democratic nomination is in the home stretch,” she said.

With seven weeks left in the primary season, she and Trump were galloping ahead of the field, November in their sights. And every day, there is less time left for their competitors to make a move.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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