Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden speaks while campaigning in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: AFP / Kyle Rivas / Getty Images

Joe Biden handily captured the Democratic primary in Michigan Tuesday, US networks projected, scoring a crucial victory over Bernie Sanders to build a strong lead in the fight for the party’s presidential nomination.

In early vote projections Biden had a seemingly insurmountable 10 percentage point advantage over Sanders – who had won the northern state’s primary four years ago over Hillary Clinton.

It was the former vice president’s third projected victory of the night, after Mississippi and Missouri, and the largest prize of the day’s six primaries, sealing his advantage over the Vermont senator.

“Thank you, Michigan!” Biden tweeted.

The win gives Biden the lion’s share of the state’s 125 delegates to the July Democratic National Convention that will pick a challenger to President Donald Trump.

Before Tuesday’s primaries Biden had already racked up 670 in earlier primaries, compared with Sanders’s 574.  

With more than half the total 57 primary contests still in front of them, a candidate needs to top 1,991 delegates to capture the nomination.

The wins confirmed crucial and overwhelming support from African American voters for Biden, the former vice president under the first black US president, Barack Obama.

Results from three more stateswere due in shortly, with Biden looking to build an invincible lead in what has become a two-man race with the self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sanders.

Adding to nerves in a country on edge after three tumultuous years under Trump, fears of the coronavirus epidemic prompted both campaigns to cancel election-night rallies.

Organizers of a live television debate scheduled Sunday, pitting the fiery Sanders and the veteran centrist Biden, likewise said they would take the extraordinary step of not allowing the usual live audience.

But for Biden, the six-state contest, coming a week after his surprise comeback in voting on Super Tuesday, was a chance to demonstrate that his once dismissed campaign is in rude health.

Michigan in particular – an industrial giant that Trump won in an upset in 2016 – had been targeted by Biden as a place to put down a marker ahead of the November general election.

Sanders had also acknowledged that Michigan is critical as a test of his message of revolution against the economic status quo.

Biden opened primary day meeting workers at an under-construction automobile plant in Detroit, where he received cheers but also was confronted by one worker.

In an exchange avidly shared online by Trump supporters, the worker, wearing a construction helmet and reflective vest, accused Biden of seeking to take away Americans’ firearms.

“You’re full of shit,” an angry Biden shot back, insisting that he supports the constitutional right to bear arms. 

When the worker pressed the issue, Biden said with a raised voice.

“I’m not taking your gun away,” he said, adding, “Gimme a break, man.”

Coronavirus fears

Voters came out under the growing shadow of the global coronavirus epidemic, which has infected about 900 people across the United States and killed 28.

Sanders and Biden called off customary election-night rallies – both planned in Cleveland, part of another Rust Belt state, Ohio, which votes next week – in line with public health warnings from state officials.

Their precaution is at odds with Trump, who has vowed to keep holding his campaign’s sometimes raucous rallies despite the concerns.

Washington state, which has borne the brunt of the crisis and also was going to the polls Tuesday, votes entirely by mail – an option some experts say should become more widespread as the epidemic grows.

Idaho and North Dakota were also voting.

But the day’s top prize was Michigan, with its large delegate haul, status as a swing state and diverse demographics that mirror the United States.

‘Most dangerous’ president

Artist and designer Cecilia Covington, 61, was the first person to vote in Precinct 123 in downtown Detroit, braving the drizzle as she arrived at Chrysler Elementary School to vote for Biden.

“When he wasn’t doing well in the polls I was really concerned,” she said, adding that his stunning comeback on Super Tuesday “put my confidence back.”

“We’ve got to get ’45’ out of office,” she said, referring to the current president.

Sanders had highlighted Biden’s support for free-trade deals in an effort to win over Michigan’s blue-collar voters, many of whom had ditched the Democrats for Trump four years ago.

“We are in a crisis in America, not only in the need to defeat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern American history, but to take on the greed and corruption of corporate elite,” Sanders said in an ABC interview.

“That is what our campaign is about. It’s very different than Joe’s.”

Biden narrowly leads delegates

Biden has also courted blue-collar workers, highlighting his own hard-knocks childhood in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

“Wall Street didn’t build America; you built America,” Biden told a rally in Detroit. “Unions built the middle class.”

Biden won 10 out of 14 states that voted on Super Tuesday and holds a narrow lead in delegates to pick the nominee, although Sanders carried the most populous state of California.

Trump had sought to portray Sanders as the victim of a conniving Democratic establishment, a narrative that some experts believed could depress turnout and benefit Republicans.

“Going to be a BAD day for Crazy Bernie!” Trump tweeted.