TAMPA, Fla. U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump launched a three-state campaign blitz on Monday ahead of a crucial round of nominating contests, and disavowed any responsibility for inciting conflict at his campaign rallies.
Trump, who hit North Carolina and Florida before a final planned stop in Ohio, said the establishment Republicans who have laboured to stop his outsider candidacy needed to recognise his strength and rally to his cause.
"What they have to do is embrace this phenomenon and go with it. Let's go win," Trump said of the party's establishment at a rally in Hickory, North Carolina, where he was interrupted several times by protesters.
Trump rejected suggestions his combative campaign tone is to blame for recent clashes at his rallies, including one last week where a protester was punched and a Chicago rally that was cancelled after fights between Trump supporters and opponents.
He said the level of campaign violence was inflated by the media and "basically" no one had been hurt at his rallies. "There's no violence," he said, describing his campaign as "a movement and a lovefest."
Five big states - Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri - hold nominating contests on Tuesday. Trump could seize control of the Republican race with a sweep and possibly knock out two of his rivals, Ohio Governor John Kasich and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Polls show him leading in all of the states except Ohio, where he is in a tight race with Kasich.
The party's anti-Trump forces, including a Super PAC formed to oppose him, kept up their assault on the brash New York billionaire. The Super PAC released an ad on Monday featuring a series of demeaning quotes by Trump about women, and urged people to oppose him "if you believe America deserves better."
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who has delivered a furious attack on Trump, was campaigning for Kasich in Ohio on Monday. Kasich's campaign said he would not endorse the governor.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton also kept an eye on Trump, saying at a campaign event in Chicago that "I don't think the stakes have ever been higher, or the rhetoric on the other side ever been lower."
'TIME TO UNITE'
Her voice hoarse, Clinton said it was "time for us to unite as a country - end divisiveness."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest also weighed in, criticizing Trump's Republican rivals for declaring they would back him if he wins the party nomination for the Nov. 8 election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama.
"At some point, somebody in the Republican Party's going to have to step up and show some leadership," Earnest said.
Trump has emerged from the early contests with a clear lead in the delegates needed to capture the nomination at the party's July convention. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is second, with Rubio and Kasich trailing and counting on their home states to keep them in the race.
Trump's contentious campaign has been marked by harsh rhetoric against Mexican immigrants and Muslims. There have been repeated clashes in recent days between his supporters and protesters, raising questions about whether the violence will hurt Trump in the primary race.
"It will help him among those who resent the left and their protests and their disruptions. But it will hurt him among independents who don't like the chaos and the confusion," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster.
Trump cancelled a rally in Chicago on Friday over security concerns after protesters swarmed the event, sparking clashes. On Saturday, he was rushed by a man on an Ohio stage and repeatedly blamed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for the disruptions.
'PUNK ASS THUGGERY STUFF'
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who appeared ahead of Trump in Florida on Monday, said protesters were "trying to take away your rights" to gather peacefully.
"What we don’t have time for is for all that petty, punk ass thuggery stuff that has been going on," she said before heading home to be with her husband Todd, who was injured in a snow machine accident.
Kasich, meanwhile, is looking to win his state and thwart Trump's progress toward securing the 1,237 delegates a candidate needs to win the nomination.
"I'm going to win Ohio, and it's going to be a whole new ballgame," Kasich said on Fox News on Monday, adding he did not believe any candidate would have enough delegates to clinch the nomination outright before the convention. "We're not going to lose tomorrow."
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Clinton hopes to pull away from rival Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, in Tuesday's voting. Polls gave her a big lead in Florida and North Carolina, but showed closer races with Sanders gaining ground in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri.
Sanders' stunning upset last week in Michigan, where polls indicated he trailed by double-digit margins, showed his ability to pull off a surprise.
At a town hall on Sunday night, the two Democrats both devoted time to attacking Trump, who they say is inciting violence at his rallies, before getting down to their battle with each other.
Sanders said at a town hall sponsored by MSNBC on Monday that Trump was "literally inciting violence among his supporters" by offering to pay their legal fees.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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Published Date: Mar 15, 2016 01:16 am | Updated Date: Mar 15, 2016 01:16 am