PALM BEACH, Fla. Former U.S. Republican presidential contender Ben Carson "buried the hatchet" and endorsed party front-runner Donald Trump on Friday, saying he believed the billionaire's pugnacious campaign style hid a more thoughtful private side.
"There are two different Donald Trumps: there's the one you see on the stage and there's the one who's very cerebral, sits there and considers things very carefully," Carson said as he became the second former Republican candidate to back Trump in the White House race.
The soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon, who dropped out of the race last week, addressed the issue of Trump's combative and sometimes crude public image, saying the American people would be "comforted" when they discover a gentler side.
"That's the Donald Trump that you're going to start seeing more and more of right now," Carson said during a joint appearance with the real estate magnate at Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
"I have found in talking with him, that there's a lot more alignment, philosophically and spiritually, than I ever thought that there was," he said.
A few hours later, at a public appearance in St. Louis, Missouri, Trump's speech was interrupted repeatedly by protesters who were led out of the event by police and security, an increasingly common occurrence at his raucous rallies.
"He's all mouth, get him out," Trump shouted as one of the protesters was led out. "Go back to mommy," he said as another protester was led away.
The latest endorsement for Trump followed a Republican debate in Miami on Thursday night at which Trump and the remaining three candidates in the Republican race struck a markedly more civil tone.
Carson shot to the top of the Republican pack last year but faltered in the early nominating contests. His endorsement is unlikely to dramatically shift the Republican race but it gives Trump a boost as the Republican establishment cranks up attacks, and comes just days before crucial nominating contests in the battle to be the party's presidential candidate for the Nov. 8 election.
Republican primaries in five states - including Florida and Ohio - on March 15 will be critical for Trump to cement his lead, and to determine whether U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Governor John Kasich will be able to continue with their increasingly long-shot candidacies. Trump's nearest rival in the race is U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
Carson's comments on Friday aimed to soften Trump's public image after a campaign marked by his demeaning personal attacks on opponents, harsh comments about Mexican immigrants and calls to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the country.
Trump's controversial campaign has led many Republican establishment figures to call for an all-out effort to prevent him from winning the nomination - an effort that Carson said would fracture the Republican Party and ensure a Democratic win in November.
Asked about Carson's comments, Trump said he did not want to "overanalyze" himself but there was only "one Donald Trump."
'I'M A THINKER'
"Certainly you have all of this, and you have somebody else that sits, and reads and thinks. And I'm a thinker," said Trump, 69. "Perhaps people don't think of me in that way because you don't see me in that form."
Trump also raised the possibility that he will not attend the next Republican debate, scheduled for later this month in Salt Lake City. "We've had enough debates, in my opinion," he said.
In St. Louis, Trump's speech was interrupted more than a half-dozen times by protesters. Scuffles between Trump supporters and protesters have become more frequent, and a protester was punched in North Carolina on Wednesday by a supporter who has been charged with assault.
"The officers are being very gentle," Trump advised, telling the crowd later that "it adds to the flavour, makes it more exciting, isn't this better than listening to a long boring speech?"
Carson's endorsement of Trump followed that of another former candidate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who announced last month he was getting behind Trump.
Next Tuesday's voting will be a pivotal point as candidates chase the 1,237 delegates from primary contests needed to win the nomination. Trump has 459 delegates, followed by Cruz at 360, Rubio at 152, and Kasich at 54, according to the Associated Press.
For his part, Rubio said in a round of television interviews on Friday he was still in position to win Florida's winner-take-all contest next week. Voters in his home state who do not want Trump as the Republican nominee should support him, he said.
"If they don't want Donald Trump to be our nominee, then voting for John Kasich or Ted Cruz in Florida is a vote for Donald Trump," Rubio said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Rubio said later that his supporters in Ohio should vote for Kasich next Tuesday if that looked like the best anti-Trump tactic.
“Clearly John Kasich has a better chance of winning Ohio than I do, and if a voter in Ohio concludes that voting for John Kasich gives us the best chance to stop Donald Trump there, I anticipate” that is what they will do, Rubio told reporters at an event in West Palm Beach, Florida.
(Additional reporting by Clarece Polke, Eric Beech and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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