WASHINGTON, March 17 (Reuters) - Joe Biden will look to build on his dominant lead in the Democratic presidential race when three states cast votes on Tuesday, but Ohio postponed its planned primary over health concerns amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Biden, the front-runner and former vice president, hopes big victories in nominating contests in Florida, Illinois and Arizona can help him amass a nearly unassailable edge over rival Bernie Sanders in the race to find a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
Biden leads Sanders in opinion polls in all three states.
Ohio also was scheduled to hold a primary on Tuesday, but Governor Mike DeWine said public health concerns made in-person voting too dangerous and delayed it until June 2. A county judge blocked his first effort to postpone the vote, but the state health director ordered the polls shut as a health emergency.
“During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus,” DeWine said on Twitter.
Officials in the three other states vowed to press ahead with voting and assured the public it was safe despite fears about the coronavirus, which has dramatically altered American life, disrupted campaign routines and prompted other states to postpone future voting.
On Monday, the White House issued guidelines to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and close bars and restaurants. Schools, businesses, sporting events and concerts have been shuttered across the country, raising questions about the wisdom of voting during a global pandemic.
But in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, officials said they were taking precautions such as extending early voting hours and moving polling places away from assisted-living facilities - even as some scrambled to find more poll workers to replace those who had backed out.
There were more than 4,300 cases of the respiratory virus across the United States and 80 deaths as of Monday night.
In Florida, the largest state to vote, with 219 delegates at stake, more than 1 million people had already cast Democratic ballots by mail or early in-person voting. In Illinois, nearly 800,000 votes had been cast by mail or through early voting - a substantial increase from the day before the 2016 primary.
“We believe that by following guidance from our state and federal health professionals, voters can vote safely at early voting sites today and at polling places tomorrow,” said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the Illinois Board of Elections.
“Also, at this point there is no date in the foreseeable future when we can expect greater safety with any certainty,” he added.
The presidential race will enter uncertain territory after Tuesday’s voting. Both Biden and Sanders have dropped off the campaign trail to help prevent the spread of the virus, and the race could face an extended hiatus if more states postpone voting.
Biden has taken command of the contest in the past two weeks, consolidating Democratic support with a string of decisive primary wins over Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont and a democratic socialist with a sweeping agenda to restructure the economy.
Biden’s victories in 16 of the last 21 state primaries have given him a lead of roughly 150 delegates over Sanders in the chase for the 1,991 delegates needed to win the nomination at July’s Democratic convention.
There are 441 delegates at stake in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, and a sweep would make it increasingly unrealistic that Sanders could catch up.
Sanders has vowed to stay in the race despite Biden’s string of recent wins. He attacked Biden’s Senate voting record and leadership on a range of issues during their first one-on-one debate on Sunday, held in Washington without an on-site audience to avoid the possible spread of the virus.
But Sanders could face renewed pressure to end his bid if he loses badly on Tuesday. Many Democrats do not want a repeat of 2016, when they believe Sanders’ long and bitter primary battle with Hillary Clinton played a role in her upset loss to Trump.
The next scheduled primary in Georgia on March 24 has been postponed, along with the April 4 primary in Louisiana, one of four states scheduled to vote that day, and Kentucky’s May 19 primary. Wyoming, which is also scheduled to vote on April 4, has suspended in-person voting in favor of ballot drop-offs and vote-by-mail.
The primary schedule thins out in April, with Wisconsin on April 7 and nothing else until six states vote on April 28.
Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney