Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt., pauses as he speaks at a campaign event in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio) Credit: Cedar Attanasio | AP

LAS VEGAS — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders scored a resounding victory in Nevada’s presidential caucuses on Saturday, cementing his status as the Democrats’ national front-runner amid escalating tensions over whether he’s too liberal to defeat President Donald Trump.

While Sanders scored a strong victory, a cluster of candidates was fighting for a distant second place and any momentum that may come with it heading into South Carolina and then Super Tuesday on March 3, when Maine will vote. Former Vice President Joe Biden, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were trailing far behind Sanders.

The 78-year-old progressive Vermont senator successfully rallied his fiercely loyal base and tapped into support from Nevada’s large Latino community as the Democratic contest moved for the first time into a state with a significant minority population.

In a show of confidence, Sanders left Nevada early to rally supporters in Texas, which offers one of the biggest delegate troves in just 10 days on Super Tuesday. The senator told cheering supporters in El Paso that Trump is “a pathological liar running a corrupt administration.”

“When we come together there is nothing we can’t accomplish,” Sanders declared.

The victory deepens concern among establishment-minded Democratic leaders who fear that the self-described democratic socialist is too extreme to defeat Trump. Sanders for decades has been calling for transformative policies to address inequities in politics and the economy, including a “Medicare for All” plan that would replace the private insurance system with a government-run universal system.

Despite establishment anxiety, moderates are struggling to unify behind a single candidate, and the vote on Saturday was again split between several candidates. Biden claimed success — but not victory — as he addressed cheering supporters in Las Vegas.

“Now we’re going on to South Carolina to win and we’re going to take this thing back,” he declared.

Nevada is the third contest on a 2020 election calendar marked by chaos and uncertainty after the opening votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, overwhelmingly white, rural states. The first presidential contest in the West tested the candidates’ strength with black and Latino voters for the first time in 2020. Nevada’s population aligns more with the U.S. as a whole.

The Nevada verdict represents the third in a primary season that will span all 50 states and several U.S. territories, ending only at the party’s national convention in July. But with two more rounds of voting scheduled over the next 10 days — including the massive delegate haul on Super Tuesday — the party may identify a consensus candidate long before the convention.

Sanders and his allies were increasingly confident about his strength in the race. In Nevada, he has strong support from Latinos and rank-and-file union workers who have warmed to his calls to transform the nation’s economy and political system to help the working class.

There was skepticism about Buttigieg’s ability to win over a more diverse set of voters after strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden, who struggled in those early states, looked to Nevada’s voters of color to prove he still had a viable path to the nomination.

New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who dominated the political conversation this week after a poor debate-stage debut, wasn’t on the ballot. He’s betting everything on a series of delegate-rich states that begin voting next month.

The stakes were high for Nevada Democrats to avoid a repeat of the chaos in Iowa, and it appeared Saturday’s caucuses were largely successful. Unlike state primaries and the November election, which are run by states and municipalities, caucuses are overseen by state parties.

Nevada Democrats sought to minimize problems by creating multiple redundancies in their reporting system. In addition, it appeared they were able to successfully navigate a complicated process for adding early voting to the caucus process.

At the Bellagio caucus site, 41-year-old Christian Nielsen, a scuba diver for the Cirque du Soleil show “O,” said he backed Sanders because he believes the country needs a “major change in the White House.”

“We need somebody in the White House who has been on the right side of history for their entire career, somebody who stands with the working class, and will make things more fair for everybody,” Nielsen said.

Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Ken Ritter and Nicholas Riccardi in Nevada and Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.