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Clinton victories spell beginning of the end for Sanders

Hillary Clinton on Tuesday moved to embrace Bernie Sanders’ supporters as she expanded her already significant delegate lead in the day’s primaries.

PHILADELPHIA – Onstage in a city where she will in all likelihood will be crowned the Democratic presidential nominee in July, Hillary Clinton on Tuesday moved to embrace Bernie Sanders’ supporters as she expanded her already significant delegate lead in the day’s primaries.

“With your help, we’re going to come back to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention,” Clinton said to supporters. “We will unify our party to win this election.”

With five Northeast states voting Tuesday, Clinton easily won the two biggest prizes of the night: Pennsylvania and Maryland. She also took home Delaware and Connecticut in tighter races. By 12:15 a.m. ET, NBC News put Clinton at 2,117 delegates and Sanders at 1,330. The nomination requires 2,383 delegates.

The added delegates create a virtually unbridgeable gap for Sanders, who had already moved on to West Virginia, which holds its primary May 10.

Sanders found a silver lining Tuesday in Rhode Island, where he notched a victory in the nation’s smallest state. It’s not much, and worth little in terms of delegates, but his disheartened supporters will happily take it.

The former secretary of state in her victory speech struck a much more magnanimous tone than she had during an MSNBC town hall the night before. There, she said it was Sanders’ job – not hers -- to bring his supporters into the fold and made it clear she had little interest in meeting them halfway.

On Tuesday, Clinton not only praised her rival but elevated his issues and made common cause with his voters.

“I applaud Senator Sanders and his millions of supporters,” she said.

She ticked through his core issues -- curbing big money in politics and economic inequality, addressing climate change – and explained they are her priorities, too.  

“In this election, we will have to stand together and work hard to prevail over candidates on the other side,” Clinton said. “And I know together we will get that done.”

RELATED: Clinton and Sanders each say party unity is the others’ job

She put no pressure on Sanders supporters to fall in line, and Clinton aides acknowledge it will take time for wounds to heal. Some know the feeling personally from when Clinton lost in 2008 to Barack Obama and slowly, grudgingly, came around to the one-time rival.

With her lock on the nomination now virtually secure, the rest of her speech, a sunny vision of a brighter future, was ready-made for the general election.

Clinton also got a taste of what she can expect in a general election against GOP front-runner Donald Trump. "The only card she has is the women's card. She's got nothing else going," he said at his election party at Trump Tower in New York City. "And, frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote."

Meanwhile, Sanders addressed more than 6,400 people and made it clear he has no interest in dropping out. Notably, he spoke about his campaign as a movement with more important goals than winning.

“This campaign is not just about electing a president, it is about transforming a nation,” he said to cheers. “The fight that we are waging is not easy fight, but I know you are prepared to wage that fight against the one percent, against the billionaire class.”

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In a statement late Tuesday, Sanders once again said he’s still in this race until the last vote is cast, but also seemed to have one eye on things he would like added to the Democratic Party’s platform.

“This campaign is going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia with as many delegates as possible to fight for a progressive party platform,” he said, listing items he wants included. 

Some of supporters seem to be at least beginning to come to grips with the end.

Democracy for America, one of the main groups backing Sanders, suggested the goal is no longer winning, but respect.

"The question right now isn't whether the movement behind Bernie Sanders is going to continue winning delegates and states in the weeks ahead, it's whether the Democratic establishment is going to bring our party together by embracing our fight,” said Charles Chamberlain, the group’s executive director.

Democratic voters overwhelmingly said they have found the primary contest thus far energizing rather than divisive, according to NBC News exit polls of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Connecticut.

Sanders supporters were far more likely to find it divisive, with 37 percent picking that response, versus 12 percent of Clinton supporters.

The road ahead improves for Sanders, with upcoming contests where the Vermont senator is expected to perform well.

Even so, the small handful of states that vote in May offer little more than opportunities for moral victories, since none are large enough to affect the delegate race in any meaningful way.

The first is Indiana, where polls show a close race ahead of next week’s primary. Then Sanders is hoping for wins in Oregon, Kentucky and West Virginia.

RELATED: Clinton wants support from Sanders, not conditions

But mostly it’s on to California, a delegate pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that Sanders fans desperately hope exists.

Even a large victory there would not be enough to secure the nomination in the Golden State, but it could at least enhance Sanders’ bargaining position with Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party heading into the July convention in Philadelphia.

Even so, Sanders will face a test much sooner. Sanders campaign officials have acknowledged that fundraising has slowed a bit since his loss in New York last week, and Sunday is the deadline when they are required to report their latest fundraising haul to the Federal Election Commission.

The campaign has been fueled by a seemingly infinite supply of small-dollar donations and would quickly sputter to a stop without them.