LEESBURG, Va. (AP) — The final-days sprint to Super Tuesday sparked a scramble among Republican candidates Monday looking to stop billionaire businessman Donald Trump from becoming an “unstoppable” force in the 2016 presidential contest.
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio continued to hammer the GOP front-runner’s character and lack of policy specifics in a series of attacks while courting voters across the South. Trump, meanwhile, unapologetically bashed protesters at one of his rallies in Radford, Va., Monday, after he was interrupted during a speech about illegal immigration and Mexico.
“Are you from Mexico?” Trump shouted from the stage.
Cruz warned that the “Trump train” could become “unstoppable” if he rolls to big victories Tuesday. Cruz cast Trump as a carbon copy Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and suggested that not even Trump “knows what he would do” as president.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio picked up Monday where he left off, dogging the GOP front-runner for not disavowing Sunday a White supremacist and the Ku Klux Klan.
Rubio says Trump’s decision not to denounce the public support of former KKK leader David Duke disqualifies him from the nomination from “the party of Lincoln.”
Trump told NBC’s “Today” on Monday that he did not hear or understand the question Sunday on CNN when he was asked about Duke and the KKK, blaming a “very bad earpiece.” He did disavow Duke’s comments earlier.
Late Sunday, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse became the first sitting Republican senator to say explicitly that he would not back Trump if he does win the nomination.
“If Trump becomes the Republican nominee my expectation is that I’ll look for some 3rd candidate — a conservative option, a constitutionalist,” Sasse wrote on Twitter.
The Duke debate seeped into the Democratic contest, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also lashed out on Twitter: “America’s first Black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK.”
Asked about the issue on Monday, Trump said he had disavowed Duke and asked, “How many times do I have to continue to disavow people.”
In a phone-in interview with NBC’s “Today” show, the real estate mogul was asked about earlier remarks in interviews where he had seemed to stop short of disavowing Duke.
He said the questioner in the earlier interview had asked about Duke and various “other groups,” saying he had difficulty with an earpiece he was wearing for the phone-in interview and didn’t want to disavow groups whose identity he didn’t know. Trump also said he had clearly made separation with Duke over the weekend in posts on Twitter and Facebook.
Clinton re-tweeted Sanders’ message. She scored a lopsided victory in South Carolina the day before, fueled by a huge advantage among African-Americans, a key Democratic constituency that will also play a dominant role in several Super Tuesday states.
Clinton turned her attention to the Republican field, all-but-ignoring rival Sanders from campaign events in Massachusetts on Monday.
“What we can’t let happen is the scapegoating, the flaming, the finger pointing that is going on the Republican side,” she told voters gathered in Springfield, Massachusetts. “It really undermines our fabric as a nation. So, I want to do everything I can in this campaign to set us on a different course.”
The latest shake up in the GOP race comes as attention shifts to the South, where the region will dominate on Super Tuesday — March 1 — and the weeks beyond.
Trump holds commanding leads across the region, with the exception of Cruz’s home state of Texas, a dynamic that puts tremendous pressure on Rubio and Cruz as they try to outlast each other and derail Trump.
Trump mocked the Republican establishment and his flailing rivals. “It’s amazing what’s going on,” he told NBC, calling his campaign a “movement.”
Peoples reported from Atlanta. Associated Press reporter Julie Pace in Washington and Lisa Lerer in Springfield, Massachusetts contributed to this report.
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