White House hopefuls hit the ground in a last-minute push for votes today on the eve of a crucial new election test, in a toxic climate following an eruption of violence around Donald Trump's race for the Republican nomination.
Dubbed "Super Tuesday 2" by US media, the latest major date in the run-up to November's presidential election will see Democratic and Republican primary contests in the states of Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.
The billionaire Trump is looking to build an insurmountable lead, but Republican rivals Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich are more determined than ever to bar his path.
Trump has jetted across the delegate-rich states in recent days, staring down criticism over clashes at a planned rally Friday in Chicago – which many saw as a natural consequence of the violent tone of his campaign.
The Republican frontrunner's invective has targeted immigrants, Muslims, Hispanics and other minorities, journalists and the disabled – often to raucous approval from thousands of chanting partisans.
But as with each new controversy swirling around him, Trump seemed unscathed by the uproar with polls suggesting he remained on a glide path toward the party nomination heading into tomorrow's make-or-break round of voting.
Trump, 69, has rejected out of hand any suggestion that his rhetorical excesses have created a climate of violence, blaming supporters of Bernie Sanders for sowing trouble – and threatening to respond in kind by sending supporters to picket the Democratic candidate's rallies.
The 74-year-old senator from Vermont, who has pointedly refrained from personal attacks in the campaign, gave a furious retort at a CNN Democratic town hall event yesterday, stating simply, "Donald Trump is a pathological liar."
"We have never, our campaign does not believe in and never will encourage anybody to disrupt anything," Sanders added.
"It is clear that Donald Trump is running a very cynical campaign pitting groups of Americans against one another. He is trafficking in hate and fear," Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said.
Trump's Republican rivals, eager to bring him down a notch but also seeming shaken by the weekend violence, have also pounced on the frontrunner.
Senator Rubio, who is trailing in third place and like Kasich faces a do-or-die test in Tuesday's vote in his home state, called Trump's language "dangerous."
"If we reach a point in this country where we can't have a debate about politics without it getting to levels of violence and anger," he told CNN, "we're going to lose our republic."
Kasich has accused him of creating a "toxic" atmosphere.
Friday's troubles in Chicago saw ardent Trump supporters and opponents come to blows, after dozens of campaign stops where he has encouraged the crowd to verbally and physically mistreat protesters.
An anti-Trump super-political action committee broadcast a television advertisement airing clips of the Republican saying "I'd like to punch him in the face," and similarly harsh statements against protesters.
In Cincinnati, Ohio yesterday, hundreds lined up to see Trump despite the drizzle – while demonstrators massed chanting "Build bridges, Not walls" and "No Trump no KKK, no fascist USA."
A protester holding a Sanders sign interrupted the candidate before being escorted out, to a loud cheer from the crowd.
"It's fine," Trump said. "In certain ways, it makes it more exciting."
Trump supporter Adam Ward, a 34-year-old Iraq war veteran, said he believed the protesters were actually helping the candidate.
"It enrages people that don't agree with Bernie Sanders," he said. "I probably wasn't going to come to this until I saw Chicago being shut down." – AFP, March 14, 2016.