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By Megan Cassella

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio racked up a number of endorsements from party leaders on Monday, giving weight to his message that he can become the establishment favorite behind whom Republicans can unite.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole said they would back the U.S. senator from Florida for the party’s nomination to run for president in the Nov. 8 election.

Three Republican leaders from Nevada – U.S. Senator Dean Heller and U.S. Representatives Cresent Hardy and Mark Amodei – also announced their support for Rubio leading up the state’s caucuses on Tuesday.

“I’m delighted to support @marcorubio because he is best choice to keep our country safe,” Hutchinson posted on Twitter. “Will you join me and help Marco win Arkansas?”

The Arkansas primary comes after Nevada in the state-by-state nominating contest on March 1. Twelve other states and American Samoa will also be holding primaries or caucuses on that date, known as Super Tuesday.

The endorsements came as Rubio tries to seize on the exit of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush on Saturday to win the support of more mainstream members of their party. Bush dropped out after a poor showing in South Carolina’s Republican primary.

Hatch, who said he had initially supported Bush because he had more experience, called Rubio the “more serious candidate” compared with front-runner Donald Trump.

“I feel he has the background to be able to really help turn this mess around,” Hatch told reporters.

Dole, a former U.S. senator from Kansas who lost to then-President Bill Clinton in 1996, said he switched his support to Rubio after Bush left the campaign trail because he was young, hard-working and a “better candidate” than rival Ohio Governor John Kasich.

“He wants to grow the party as opposed to (U.S. Senator Ted) Cruz,” Dole said in an interview on ABC’s Political Powerhouse podcast, referring to another Republican candidate. “I don’t know what he wants to grow.”

(Reporting by Megan Cassella; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Eric Walsh and Jonathan Oatis)

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks during a campaign event in Elko, Nevada February 22, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Keane

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