By Steve Holland
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) – Donald 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 the billionaire businessman’s 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, Ohio Governor John Kasich and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, if he wins their states. His closest challenger nationally is U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, 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, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 68, could put some distance between herself and rival Bernie Sanders, 74, a U.S. senator from Vermont, 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.
Democratic President Barack 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 IN DEMAND
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.”
Trump won an early round on Tuesday, taking the Northern Mariana Islands caucuses with almost 73 percent of the vote. The win in the U.S. Pacific commonwealth gave him nine delegates.
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.”
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker in Ohio, Fiona Ortiz in Chicago, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Peter Cooney, W Simon and Jonathan Oatis)
Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Savannah Center in Cincinnati, Ohio March 13, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein