The specter of Donald Trump as an elected nominee for president pushed his Republican opponents to desperate measures on Sunday, two days before a dozen states could vote to give the billionaire a huge lead in the 2016 contest.
Marco Rubio predicted he could win the nomination without winning a state, while Ted Cruz raised allegations that Trump once contracted a mafia-owned company.
Though no Republican votes were cast this weekend, Trump presided proudly over the campaign – to the extent that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic victor in South Carolina, aimed her victory speech his way and not towards Bernie Sanders.
On Friday two sitting governors endorsed Trump; on Saturday two former presidents of Mexico compared him to Hitler; and on Sunday he initially declined to condemn a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan – even though he had disavowed the man’s endorsement two days earlier.
“I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists,” Trump told CNN, insisting he had never heard of David Duke, a former grand wizard of the group.
“Certainly I would disavow it if I thought there was something wrong,” Trump said. “If you send me a list of groups, I’ll let you know.”
The refusal to pass judgment on the former Klansman directly contradicted what Trump told reporters on Friday – as he eventually pointed out on Sunday.
His claim to know nothing about Duke also contradicted a statement he made in 2000, when he called Duke “a Klansman” and said: “This is not company I wish to keep.”
Cruz, the Texas senator and hardline conservative who defeated Trump in Iowa thanks to evangelical voters, appeared on all five main political talk shows on Sunday morning to argue that his hopes of sweeping the south had not been shattered.
Cruz described Trump as a fairweather conservative who lacked judgment, telling CNN that if the businessman were president, “who the heck knows what he would do? Even Donald doesn’t know what he would do.”
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He later speculated that Trump has refused to release his tax returns because he wants to hide “business dealings with the mob, with the mafia”.
The senator then alluded to allegations raised in a biography of Trump regarding business contracts with the S&A Concrete company, which was run in the 1980s by Anthony Salerno, whom Cruz said was “a mobster who is in jail”. Salerno diedin prison in 1992.
“We don’t know what it is that he’s hiding in his tax returns,” Cruz said. Trump repeatedly dismissed calls to release his returns on Sunday, claiming that a tax audit prohibited the release. There is no legal restriction against doing so.
Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who has racked up endorsements from Republican congressmen and governors without having won a state, insisted that he could still win the nomination.
“I don’t care how long I have to work,” Rubio told Fox News Sunday of his commitment to defeating Trump. “I will go to every state and every territory.”
I believe that a first-rate con artist is on the verge of taking over the party of Reagan and Lincoln
Pressed on whether he could win the nomination if he were to lose every state in this week’s elections, the 12-state “Super Tuesday” contest, Rubio said: “Sure. That’s not the plan, by the way, but sure.”
He then voiced anxieties that have coursed through the Republican party for months: “I believe that a first-rate con artist is on the verge of taking over the party of Reagan and Lincoln.”
Calling the billionaire “a clown act” who is “preying on” struggling Americans, Rubio warned that Trump’s business record does not bear out his campaign promise to “make America great again”.
“He’s going to make America broke, like he did those four companies,” Rubio joked bitterly. “He’s going to make it a casino.”
The darkening mood even pervaded interviews with John Kasich, the Ohio governor whose strategy to win moderate Republican supports counts on his relentless and quixotic good cheer.
“I think Trump’s probably going to win probably all of them,” he told CNN of Tuesday’s primaries, which will dole out delegates to the candidates proportionally according to election results. Trump leads polls in most Super Tuesday states, except Texas and Arkansas, where Cruz leads in some counts.
“Our campaign plan was ultimately to hold our own in some of these places, and we will,” Kasich said. He admitted, however, that should he lose in his home state, Ohio, on 15 March, a winner-take-all contest in a critical state, “it’s time to call it over”.
“You can’t win your home state, you need to get out,” he said.
Both Kasich and Rubio – who trails Trump in his Florida home – suggested their campaigns were ready for a brokered Republican convention in July, in order to keep the delegates Trump needs out of his hands.
But that scenario would require a wholesale revolt against Trump by the Republican party, and the billionaire repeated hints that he is prepared to break his pledge not to run a third-party campaign.
“If they have a problem, I’m going to have a big problem with that,” Trump said. “If they want to play that game, I can play it a lot better than they can.”
This article was first published in theguardian.com