TAMPA, FLORIDA – U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump hunted for votes in three states on Monday ahead of a crucial round of nominating contests, and dismissed outbreaks of violence at his campaign events as “a little disruption.”
Trump, who made appearances in North Carolina, Florida and Ohio before Tuesday’s primaries, said the establishment Republicans who have labored to stop his outsider candidacy needed to recognize 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 party leaders at a rally in Hickory, North Carolina, where he was interrupted several times by protesters.
Trump rejected suggestions his combative campaign tone was to blame for recent clashes at his rallies, including one last week where a protester was punched and a Chicago rally that was canceled after fights between Trump supporters and opponents.
He said the level of violence was inflated by the media and “basically” no one had been hurt at his rallies, although “maybe somebody got hit once.”
“It’s a little disruption, but there’s no violence,” Trump said, describing his campaign as “a movement and a lovefest.”
Five states — Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri — hold nominating contests on Tuesday for the Nov. 8 election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama.
Trump could seize control of the Republican race with a sweep and possibly knock out two of his rivals, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Opinion polls show him leading in all five states except Ohio, where he is in a tight race with Kasich.
“If we win Ohio and we win Florida, then everybody agrees it’s pretty much over,” Trump told an afternoon rally in Tampa, Florida. “The Republican Party has to come together.”
But 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 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, campaigned for Kasich in North Canton, Ohio, on Monday but refrained from criticizing Trump by name or explicitly endorsing Kasich.
“He has the kind of record you want in Washington,” Romney said of Kasich.
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.”
Her voice hoarse, Clinton said it was “time for us to unite as a country.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest criticized Trump’s Republican rivals for declaring they would back him if he wins the party nomination for the November election.
“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. Sen. 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 illegal 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 canceled 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.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who appeared ahead of Trump in Tampa 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 she headed home to be with her husband, Todd, who was injured in a snowmobile accident.
Kasich is looking to win his home 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 before the convention. “We’re not going to lose tomorrow.”
Cruz held five rallies in the Chicago suburbs and told voters to support him if they wanted to stop Trump.
He said Trump had donated in the past to two Illinois Democrats — former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — and asked voters to “remember who the moneybags is that’s funding these politicians.”
In the Democratic race, Clinton, a former secretary of state, hopes to pull away from Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, in Tuesday’s voting. Polls gave her a big lead in Florida and North Carolina, but showed Sanders gaining ground in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri.
Sanders’ win last week in Michigan, where polls indicated he trailed by double-digit margins, showed his ability to pull off a surprise.
He told a town hall sponsored by MSNBC to air later on Monday that Trump was “literally inciting violence among his supporters” by offering to pay their legal fees.