COLUMBUS, Ohio — Showing few signs of trying to ease the nation’s tense political atmosphere, Republican front-runner Donald Trump is standing by his antagonistic campaign rhetoric, rejecting any responsibility for violence at his rallies and defending his supporters who have been charged with assaulting protesters.
“We’re not provoking. We want peace. . . . We don’t want trouble,” he told a large crowd in Bloomington, Illinois, the first of three comparatively docile events from Illinois to Florida as he campaigned ahead of another critical slate of large-state primaries.
Trump’s remarks came after a near-riot Friday night in Chicago as Trump canceled a scheduled rally amid widespread altercations among his supporters, detractors and authorities.
His three-state tour also came less than 48 hours before polls open in a five-state slate that could determine whether he wins the GOP nomination without a contested summer convention.
Against that backdrop, Trump continued to blame protesters, media and even Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders for the increasingly caustic campaign environment that his rivals assailed as “cause for pause” and certain “to do damage to America.”
Interrupted only sparingly at his events throughout the day, Trump assured his backers their frustration is righteous rage against a corrupt political and economic system. He cast his naysayers as “bad people” that “do harm to the country.”
Though by the end of the night, he seemed to miss the commotion.
In Boca Raton, where he spoke in an outdoor amphitheater on a balmy Florida night, he asked, 20 minutes into his speech, “Do we have a protester anywhere? Do we have a disrupter?”
Trump has tried to shift focus to Ohio, where he faces a late push from the popular governor, John Kasich. The outcome will help determine whether Trump can reach the 1,237 delegates required for nomination and avoid a contested GOP convention this summer in Cleveland.
“If we can win Ohio, we’re going to run the table, folks,” Trump said in West Chester, Ohio, his second event Sunday.
Kasich will campaign in Ohio on Monday with 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin will campaign separately for Trump on Monday in Florida.
Besides Ohio, Illinois and Florida, voters in North Carolina and Missouri will cast primary ballots Tuesday.
Trump this weekend called Kasich “a baby” saying he’s “not tough enough to be president.” He went on to incorrectly identify the governor as KASE-itch, deliberately mispronouncing his rivals’ Czech surname. “Like, most people don’t even know how to pronounce his name. Kase-ick! Kase-ick!” Trump mocked.
Kasich, meanwhile, reversed his monthslong practice of avoiding the topic of Trump.
Speaking with The Associated Press aboard his campaign bus between stops in Ohio, Kasich brandished his iPad and read a list of Trump quotes compiled by an aide.
The quotes included Trump’s comments that his audiences should “hit back” a little more and a statement that he’d like to “punch” a protester “in the face.”
Said Kasich: “It’s really cause for pause.”
Later Sunday, Kasich told a crowd in Hanoverton, Ohio, without mentioning Trump: “Do we go to the dark side, with negativity, the gnashing of teeth . . . or do we go to the hopeful and the light side?”
Not to be outdone, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest competitor in delegate count, and third-place Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, also piled on.
Cruz was careful to criticize protesters for their methods, but he said Trump encourages an essentially un-American atmosphere.
“I’m troubled by the rallies that Donald holds, where he asks all the people there to raise their hand and pledge their support to him,” Cruz said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“This is America. We don’t pledge allegiance to a man,” he said. “We pledge allegiance to a flag.”
A distant third in delegates, Rubio compared Trump to third-world “strong men” and said the tone of the campaign “is really going to do damage to America.”
Rubio has gone so far as to say his supporters in Ohio should vote for Kasich to help derail Trump. Kasich has not returned the favor.
In Columbus, Ohio, Cruz argued that Republican voters are wasting their time with either Kasich or Rubio. “It’s mathematically impossible for either one of them to win 1,237” delegates, he said, referring to Kasich and Rubio.
Kasich has yet to win a single state, while Rubio has won two primaries: Minnesota and Puerto Rico.
Despite Sunday’s relative calm, Trump’s events unquestionably have become increasingly tense over the course of his campaign, and the candidate has frequently called for aggressive tactics against protesters.
He confirmed earlier Sunday that he was considering paying the legal fees of a North Carolina man charged with assault after video captured him sucker-punching a protester at a March 9 rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
He began this weekend blaming protesters on Sanders, saying the Vermont senator’s campaign organizes “disrupters” at Trump events.
Indeed, some protesters at Trump events are seen carrying Sanders’ campaign signs, but Sanders said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that it’s “a lie” to suggest “our campaign is telling people to disrupt his campaign.”
Trump wrote on Twitter and suggested again on the Sunday talk show circuit he would urge his backers to protest Sanders rallies. Sanders’ official Twitter account retorted: “Send them. They deserve to see what a real honest politician sounds like.”
Trump counters that he’s due credit for canceling the Friday rally and avoiding a worse outcome. And despite multiple videos showing protesters pushed, punched and bullied at his events, he claimed “nobody gets hurt” at his rallies.
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press reporters Alan Scher Zagier in Illinois, Kathleen Ronayne in Ohio and Sergio Bustos and Jill Colvin in Florida contributed.