TAMPA, FLORIDA/WASHINGTON – Donald Trump looked to lock his grip on the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday in high-stakes primary contests that could force two rivals out of the race and give the billionaire developer an insurmountable lead in the all-important delegate count. Hillary Clinton sought to pad her lead in the Democratic race, but continued to face a tough challenge from Bernie Sanders.
Tuesday’s votes in Ohio, Florida and three other states could be the last, best chance for Republican leaders to stop Trump. The brash, controversial reality TV star and real estate mogul has upended the political establishment by winning most of the state-by-state competitions for delegates who will choose the Republican nominee. He has seized on Americans’ anger with Washington politicians, winning over voters with his simply worded promise to make America great again.
While Trump has amassed the most delegates, he’s won fewer than 50 percent of them. If that pace continues, he would fall short of the majority that he would need to assure him the nomination at the party’s convention in July. The result could be a contested convention, creating an unpredictable outcome.
Tuesday’s vote could change the race. Ohio and Florida are the first states to hold winner-take-all contests in the Republican race. If Trump loses in Ohio, where he is in a tight race with the state’s governor, John Kasich, it would be harder for him get to the 50 percent level. The same is true in an even-bigger state, Florida, though Trump is favored to win there despite a challenge from Marco Rubio, a senator from the state.
Trump victories in those states, however, would likely swell his delegate totals over the 50 percent mark and probably drive Rubio and Kasich out of the race. That would set up a one-on-one contest for the remaining states with Ted Cruz, the arch-conservative senator from Texas, who has also alienated the Republican establishment.
In the Democratic race, Clinton was expected to widen her delegate lead over Sanders, a Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist. But Sanders could do well in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio, where he has criticized the former secretary of state for her past support for trade deals. Sanders is unlikely to overtake Clinton in the delegate count, but his continued success could lengthen the Democratic race and underscore the unease that many party voters have about her candidacy.
Campaigning Tuesday in North Carolina, Clinton signaled an eagerness to move on to a possible general election showdown with Trump, saying he’s laid out a “really dangerous path” for the country.
Trump has alienated many Republicans and Democrats alike with his disparaging remarks about Mexicans, Muslims and women among others. He entered Tuesday’s primaries embroiled in one of the biggest controversies of his contentious campaign. He has encouraged supporters to confront protesters at his events and is now facing accusations of encouraging violence after skirmishes at a rally last week in Chicago that he ended up canceling.
“I don’t think I should be toning it down because I’ve had the biggest rallies of anybody probably ever,” Trump said Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “We have had very, very little difficultly.”
Rubio and Kasich have suggested they might not be able to support Trump if he’s the nominee, an extraordinary stance for intraparty rivals. All of the candidates had earlier pledged to support the nominee.
Alluding to Trump, President Barack Obama said Tuesday he was dismayed by “vulgar and divisive rhetoric” directed at women and minorities as well as the violence that has occurred in the campaign.
Trump has been the target of millions of dollars in negative advertising in recent weeks, including one ad campaign that highlights his statements that appear to encourage violence — among them, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
Trump won easily in the Northern Mariana Islands caucus on Tuesday, picking up nine delegates. That gave him 469 to 370 for Cruz, 163 for Rubio and 63 for Kasich. It takes 1,237 to win the Republican nomination.
Entering Tuesday, Clinton had 768 pledged delegates compared to 554 for Sanders, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Overall, Clinton holds 1,235 total delegates, more than half the amount needed to clinch the nomination when the count includes superdelegates, who are elected officials and party leaders free to support the candidate of Trump could take a giant step on Tuesday toward securing the Republican presidential nomination if he wins the Florida and Ohio primaries, despite criticism that his rowdy campaign is dividing America.
Trump has the potential to sweep five big states holding party primary contests for the November election: Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri.
The Republican front-runner could knock out his two mainstream rivals, Kasich and Rubio, if he wins their states. His closest challenger nationally is Cruz, a tea party favorite.
Trump, 69, has a significant lead over Rubio in opinion polls in Florida, but is neck and neck with Kasich in Ohio. Any win by either Rubio, Kasich or Cruz, 45, would give at least a small degree of hope to Republicans battling to deny the New Yorker the nomination.
On the Democratic side, Clinton, 68, could put some distance between herself and rival Bernie Sanders, 74, in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries.
An outbreak of clashes between Trump supporters and protesters that forced him to cancel a rally in Chicago on Friday, and scattered protests at some of his campaign events this week have prompted mainstream Republican Party figures to speak out against the former reality TV star.
Obama said on Tuesday he was dismayed by what was happening on the presidential campaign trail and, in a reference to Trump, said he rejected any measures to encourage violence.
“I reject any effort to spread fear or encourage violence … or to turn Americans against one another,” Obama said during an event on Capitol Hill.
Victories in the five states could put Trump — who has vowed to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, impose protectionist trade policies and temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country — on a glide path to being his party’s presidential candidate in November. That seemed inconceivable only last year.
Trump said on Tuesday that his momentum was already drawing in establishment Republicans who had previously balked at his candidacy but now see him as the likely nominee.
“They’re already calling,” he told NBC’s “Today” show, without naming names. “The biggest people in the party are calling.”
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, one of the most powerful Republicans in the country, said all presidential candidates must bear responsibility for helping curb violence at campaign events and creating a less hostile atmosphere.
“All candidates have an obligation to do what they can do … provide an atmosphere of harmony, to reduce violence, to not incite violence,” Ryan told reporters.
For the Democrats, opinion polls gave Clinton a big lead in Florida and North Carolina, but showed Sanders gaining ground in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, a possibly worrisome sign for Clinton after his surprise victory in Michigan a week ago.
Speaking to reporters at a polling place in Raleigh, North Carolina, Clinton had Trump on her mind.
“I think it is important that we really do focus on the very dangerous path that Donald Trump has laid out here,” she said. “The kind of bluster and bigotry and bullying that he is exemplifying on the campaign trail is disturbing to, I think, the majority of Americans.”
The Republican establishment’s only real hope for stopping Trump might be to deny him the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination, even though he may win a majority of them. That would extend the battle to the party’s nominating convention in July in Cleveland.
“If he’s the nominee, he is not going to be able to unite the party. In fact, I think he’ll bitterly divide it,” Rubio, 44, told Fox News.
Trump argues that his candidacy has brought a breath of fresh air to U.S. politics and says his campaign rallies are peaceful events except for a few incidents.
If Kasich and Rubio do drop out of the race after Tuesday, that would leave Cruz as the only Republican in the field against Trump. The Texan senator has struggled during the primary season to build support beyond his base of evangelical Christians and Republican Southerners.
At a voting site in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Elaine Handy, 74, said she voted for Cruz.
“He’s a man of principle,” she said. “I believe we really need men of principle in the government.” She said she did not consider voting for Trump. “He’s rash.”