MONROE, N.C. Donald Trump moved closer to capturing the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential nomination with his latest primary victories and on Wednesday urged the forces within the party who oppose him to get behind him or risk a loss to Democrats in November.
The real estate tycoon struck a more conciliatory tone toward the Republican establishment that has fiercely resisted his advance - first by backing favourite candidates who failed to win votes, then by pouring money into campaigns against him.
"If we embrace what is happening and everyone came together, instead of spending all this money on these ads that frankly are wrong, and they’re just false ads," Trump told Fox News. "If everyone came together, no one could beat the Republican Party. We would walk into Washington."
Trump, the front-runner to win his party's nomination for the Nov. 8 election, also praised U.S. House of Representative Speaker Paul Ryan after speaking with him by phone this week, calling the Republican leader a "good man." Ryan's office said the speaker was calling all the Republican candidates to discuss a conservative policy agenda.
The New York billionaire, 69, fended off a week of attacks from the party's establishment and defied predictions his campaign might be losing steam with primary wins on Tuesday in the big prize of Michigan as well as Mississippi and Hawaii.
His convincing win in Michigan restored his campaign's momentum, narrowing prospects for the party's anti-Trump forces to stop him as several important contests loom on March 15.
With Tuesday's wins, Trump increased his delegate lead as he chases the 1,237 needed to win the nomination. Trump now has 446 delegates, with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas second with 347 delegates, according to The New York Times.
Cruz, 45, who has won enough contests to present himself as a viable Trump alternative, won the endorsement of former Republican rival Carly Fiorina on Wednesday and appealed to anti-Trump Republicans to back him.
"If you don't want to Donald Trump as the nominee, if you don't want to hand the election on a silver platter to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, then I ask you to join us," Cruz said in Miami.
Trump, a former reality TV star, has peppered his campaign with put-downs of rivals and critics. Many mainstream Republicans have been offended by his statements on Muslims, immigrants and women and alarmed by his threats to international trade deals.
In the Democratic contest, Bernie Sanders stunned front-runner Hillary Clinton in a narrow upset in Michigan, giving his upstart campaign new energy. Clinton won in Mississippi, but Sanders' victory in Michigan was seen as likely to ensure a prolonged fight to pick a candidate.
Clinton's campaign has been dogged by questions over her use of a private server while she was secretary of state and - in a sign the issue will not go away - the Republican National Committee filed a lawsuit on Wednesday seeking records between Clinton and her aides.
CAN TRUMP BE STOPPED? DELEGATE MATH
Trump could open a sizable delegate lead going into July's Republican Party nominating convention if he is able to win next Tuesday in Florida, Ohio, or Illinois, states that allot all their delegates to the winner.
Even the states where Cruz is expected to do well next week may not be enough to make up considerable ground. North Carolina and Missouri divide their delegates proportionally. So even winning both is unlikely to put him ahead of Trump.
Ohio Governor John Kasich, 63, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, 44, could throw a wrench into Trump's delegate stash if they win in their home states next week. Kasich nearly tied Cruz for second place in Michigan on Tuesday, but Rubio lags in delegates and momentum going into the Florida contest.
If the candidates continue to split winner-take-all competitions, the race could drag on until the end of the nominating contests, even until June 7, when California’s 172 delegates will be awarded in a proportional system that heavily favours the winner.
Republican strategist Greg Mueller, who has worked on efforts to oppose Trump's candidacy, said he wouldn't count Rubio and Kasich out yet.
"Rubio has a strong grassroots operation and is well known in his home state as is Kasich in Ohio so things are still in play for Rubio," Mueller said. "Trump might have the momentum but the math is still not near complete for him as we enter the big rounds in the battle for delegates."
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell in Washington; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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