Donald Trump looks to extend his dominance as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio scramble for delegates in presidential primary contests across 11 states on a Super Tuesday, stained by panic from Republican leaders even before the results were known.
Fearing a Trump sweep, Republican officials across the nation lashed out at the billionaire businessman’s temperament and command of the issues in the hours before voting began. Having won three consecutive primary elections, Trump was poised to tighten his grasp on the GOP nomination in primary elections from Georgia to Massachusetts and Texas to Arkansas.
"These are challenging times for the Republican Party," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who wanted to stay neutral in the GOP primary but endorsed Rubio last week. "Those that care deeply, as myself, probably should have been engaged earlier in trying to show that Donald Trump is not the right one to lead the conservative movement and to lead our party."
The comments came during a wild prelude to Super Tuesday that featured a dispute over the Klu Klux Klan, a violent clash between a photographer and a secret service agent, and extraordinary criticism from several Republican governors and senators who refused to say whether they would support their party’s front-runner should Trump win the nomination.
A confident Trump brushed off his critics on Tuesday morning, suggesting that he’s helping to grow the party and even attracting Democrats to the GOP.
"We’re getting people into the party that they’ve never had before," he told ABC’s "Good Morning America." ”I can tell you the one person Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to run against is me."
Trump was seeking to sweep a series of contests across the South, which would be a massive blow for Cruz, in particular. The Texas senator, a favorite of the region’s social conservatives and evangelical Christians, long expected the South to be his firewall, but now simply hopes to emerge with a victory in his home state.
Rubio’s goal on Super Tuesday is even more modest. He’s seeking to stay competitive in the delegate count while eyeing a win in his home state of Florida on March 15. Republican officials have rallied behind Rubio over the last week, but he’s failed to win a single state so far and could very well continue the winless streak on Tuesday.
The junior senator from Florida was in Minnesota on Tuesday warning voters of consequences to electing an outspoken celebrity. Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler-turned-governor of Minnesota, told The Associated Press this week that he’d consider a third-party White House run if Rubio or Hillary Clinton are the party nominees because he doesn’t "want the revolution to die."
"Jesse Ventura was an embarrassment," Rubio proclaimed to the crowd in Andover. "Let me rephrase that: Jesse Ventura is an embarrassment."
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson remain in the race, but neither is expected to be a major factor on Super Tuesday.
With some fearing Trump’s delegate lead could become insurmountable by the middle of the month, the best hope for Rubio, Cruz and Kasich could be a contested national convention in July. But even that could be optimistic should Trump continue to dominate.
Republicans spent months largely letting Trump go unchallenged, wrongly assuming that his populist appeal with voters would fizzle. Now party leaders are divided between those who pledge to fall in line behind Trump if he wins their party’s nomination and others who insist they can never back him.
An Associated Press survey of GOP senators and governors across the country showed just under half of respondents would not commit to backing Trump if he’s the nominee. Their reluctance foreshadowed a potentially extraordinary split in the party this fall.
"Right now we are in a very dangerous place," said former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman.
"You’ve got a con man and a bully who is moving forward with great speed to grab the party’s mantle to be its standard bearer," Coleman, who backs Rubio, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That’s almost incomprehensible."
(Copyright (c) 2016 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)