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Republican race grows cruder and more aggressive

Republican presidential candidates, from left, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Donald Trump, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Republican presidential candidates, from left, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Donald Trump, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.Associated Press

PURCELLVILLE, Va. — It is the kind of campaign he said he would never run. But Sen. Marco Rubio, seeing his path to the Republican nomination grow narrower with each contest, has determined that the only way to beat Donald Trump is to fight like him: rough, dirty, and mean.

The acidity coming from Rubio these days, and the gleefully savage way Trump has responded, have sent an already surreal presidential campaign lurching into the gutter with taunts over perspiration, urination and self-tanner.

On Sunday, the hits were more substantive, but no less aggressive: Rubio scoffed at Trump’s clothing line — “those tacky ties” — and criticized him for making them in China. He said Trump’s education business, Trump University, was a scam that essentially stole tens of thousands of dollars from its students. And he expressed astonishment that during a television interview Sunday morning, Trump refused to repudiate the white supremacist David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan.

“We cannot be a party who nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists,” Rubio said, to roaring approval from the crowd.


Trump, who has been accused of stirring up racial strife, handed his critics more ammunition on Sunday when he refused the opportunity to distance himself from Duke and the Klan. Asked repeatedly to do so in an interview with CNN, he demurred. “You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about,” he said. “I would have to look.”

Later he backtracked, posting on Twitter, “I disavow.”

Rubio’s headfirst lunge into a bout with Trump is a striking turnaround that the Florida senator himself calls disappointing. But it also reflects a conclusion that his above-the-fray approach was ineffective against a front-runner who seems to gain popularity with each fight he picks.

“I had hoped that this would be a campaign only about ideas,” Rubio told the crowd of more than 3,000 here, in the far suburbs of Washington, as he accused Trump of being a fraud, a threat to national security and possibly even a racist.


“I need your vote Tuesday,” Rubio told his audience, which was about as rowdy and animated as any he had drawn. “Friends do not let friends vote for con artists.”

Virginia is one of more than 10 delegate-rich states that will vote in the Super Tuesday contests this week; others include Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Massachusetts — most of which Trump is favored to win.

But Trump was not content on Sunday to rest on his polls: He picked up the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a vehement opponent of the immigration overhaul that Rubio championed in 2013, in a boisterous, late-afternoon rally outside Huntsville.

“I told Donald Trump, ‘This isn’t a campaign; this is a movement,’” Sessions said, looking out over a crowd of thousands.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, campaigning in Oklahoma, tried to keep himself in the thick of the Republican fight by attacking Trump over his use of foreign workers. But Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, all but conceding the Super Tuesday contests, lamented the demolition derby-like state of the primary contest, hoping his sense of decorum would help him win over voters in Massachusetts.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, both attacked Trump, as Clinton all but ignored Sanders in courting black voters in Tennessee while Sanders, campaigning in Oklahoma and Colorado, declared that “Love trumps hatred.”


Rubio has seemed to sense that he could pay a price if he is seen as engaging in the kind of bullying that Trump has trademarked.

“These are facts,” Rubio said, explaining his attacks on Sunday, “about an individual who wants access to the nuclear codes for America.”

As they watched Trump clinch his third straight victory with a win in the Nevada caucuses last week, Rubio and his aides concluded that the only way to beat him was to get inside his head, by stooping to his level: taunt, insult, mock and have a blast doing it.

They seem satisfied that it is working.

“We came to the conclusion that if being a part of the circus is the price you have to pay in order for us to ultimately be able to talk about substantive policy, then that’s what we’re going to do,” said Todd Harris, a senior Rubio adviser.

Harris noted that Rubio’s speeches were now being carried live on television. And if the price of admission, he added, was talking about “how Trump is a con man, with a bad spray tan” so be it. What has followed is a race that looks more like a variety show than a campaign to elect the most powerful leader on earth.

So far, Rubio supporters seem surprised by, if open to, his change in tone.

Alison Whiteley, a retiree in her 50s who saw Rubio speak in Oklahoma City on Friday, said the race had turned “uglier” this cycle, but she did not blame Rubio, whom she supports. “Rubio would not be acting like this if it wasn’t for Trump,” she said. “He has to stand up for himself because Trump is just running all over everybody.”


Cruz Lets Fly a Populist Pitch

A list of topics Cruz did not expect to be discussing 48 hours before the most important day of his candidacy: his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan; Trump’s tax returns and his possible ties to the mobster “Fat Tony” Salerno; “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Yet with Cruz’s long-ballyhooed Southern firewall under assault, circumstances have conspired to force the Texas senator off message, if he hopes to remain central to the conversation at all.

Cruz, desperate for a Super Tuesday victory outside his home state, slipped north for three events in Oklahoma, a crucial target.

“The only campaign, the only candidate, in position to beat Trump on Super Tuesday is us,” he told a few hundred energized locals inside a cavernous expo hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For days, Cruz has pleaded with voters not to be dazzled by “P.T. Barnum” and the “dancing bears” of the 2016 election.

On Sunday, at the sprawling event complex where Cruz spoke, he competed for attention with an actual circus, elephants and all; a gun show; a youth volleyball tournament; and the “Golden Driller,” a well-known 76-foot statue of an oil worker.


The senator let fly a populist pitch, praising those “with calluses on your hands” and faulting Trump for using foreign labor to fill service jobs.

He asked those who had worked in restaurants to raise their hands.

“Take a look at the hands,” he said, adding, “My dad started washing dishes.”

As he finished, a small animal rights protest flared outside.

“The circus hurts animals,” read one sign, hauled by a young child.

It showed an injured elephant.

Kasich Pleads for Civility

Kasich, of Ohio, is sick and tired of all the shouting.

Kasich, the Mr. Positive in the Republican field, does not expect to win any states on Tuesday. But he hopes to do well in at least a few of them, including Massachusetts.

And these days, he would just like everyone to be nicer.

He recalled Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and the Rev. Billy Graham. They did not raise their voices, he said.

“The people in the media, they love the yelling and the screaming and the shouting and the insults because it’s like being in Talladega,” he said at a town hall-style forum in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“We go to those races, and we want to see something happen that ain’t great on Turn 3 at Talladega,” he said. “But when we go to the races, we don’t want to see a crackup every time they go around the track, and that’s what we’re getting today in American politics.”

“Frankly,” he added, “it’s disgraceful.”

The crowd applauded. Kasich said that the applause would never make it to television screens. “Because it’s nobody attacking anybody,” he said.

Kasich soon turned to take questions. Lenny Cooperman, 63, an administrative law judge, asked him about immigration, but added a preface. “I applaud you for keeping an air of dignity and civility in this campaign,” Cooperman said.

But that was not enough to win him over.

After the forum, Cooperman said he was focused on deciding between two candidates: Kasich and Trump. He said he liked the idea of an outsider.

Clinton Vows to Tackle Racism

A day after black voters delivered Clinton an overwhelming victory in the South Carolina primary, she spoke at two black churches in Memphis, Tennessee, vowing to “tackle the continuing challenge of systemic racism” and decrying Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

“America has never stopped being great,” she said at the Greater Imani Cathedral of Faith, her allusion to Trump prompting a loud amen. “Our task,” Clinton continued, “is to make America whole.”

After capturing nearly 74 percent of the black vote in South Carolina, Clinton hopes support from African-Americans will propel her to victories against Sanders in Tennessee, Georgia and other Southern states Tuesday.

Clinton repeatedly spoke of bringing more “love and kindness” to the country.

“I know it’s kind of odd sometimes when people hear me talking about, as I did last night in South Carolina, how we need more love and kindness,” she said at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Sunday.

“But I believe that with all my heart,” she said. “We have to start treating each other with respect, listening to each other, holding out hands, a fellowship.”

In her stump speech, Clinton seemed to put Sanders in her rearview mirror, focusing on the stakes if a Republican won in the fall.

She also spoke about the countries she visited as secretary of state — “large ones, small ones, itsy-bitsy ones,” as she said at a stop in Nashville, Tennessee.

“They all want to be like us,” she said, adding: “We need to be whole, where everybody feels like we’re all in this together.”

A man in the crowd yelled out, “We love you, Hillary!”

Clinton smiled and said, “You know, I’m all about love and kindness, so I sure appreciate that.”

Sanders Is Blunt Yet Upbeat

Sanders did not mince words about his South Carolina loss. “We got decimated,” he said on Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

“The only positive thing for us is we won the actually — the 29 years of age and younger vote. And that was good. But we got killed.”

Still, he was upbeat. “We think we’re going to do very well in Minnesota on Super Tuesday; Colorado we’re going to do well; Oklahoma we’re going to do well,” he said. “I think we’re going to win in Massachusetts. And I believe we’re going to win in Vermont. And we’re going to do better than people think in other states.”

Sanders was buoyed by a crowd of about 6,000 in Oklahoma City, before heading to Fort Collins, Colorado.

He said he looked forward to defeating Trump in November, whom he blasted for insulting “Mexican, Muslims, women, African-Americans, veterans and basically anybody who does not look like him.”

“We will win,” Sanders said, “because love trumps hatred.”