Rubio decides he must play rough to win
Senator dumps his above-the-fray approach as ineffective against front runner Trump
PURCELLVILLE (Virginia) • It is the kind of campaign he said he would never run. But Senator Marco Rubio, seeing his path to the Republican nomination for the US presidential election growing narrower, has decided that the only way to defeat Mr Donald Trump is to fight like him: rough, dirty and mean.
The acidity coming from Mr Rubio these days, and the gleefully savage way Mr Trump has responded, has sent an already surreal presidential campaign lurching into the gutter with taunts over perspiration, urination and self-tanning.
In a debate on Sunday, the hits were more substantive but no less aggressive: Mr Rubio scoffed at Mr Trump's clothing and criticised him for making his "tacky ties" in China. He said Mr 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 Mr Trump had refused to repudiate support from white supremacist David Duke.
The Republican establishment is now quickly rallying behind Mr Rubio in a last-minute attempt to derail Mr Trump, fearing that today's Super Tuesday primaries could tighten the billionaire's grip on the party's nomination.
Mr Rubio's recent performances appear to be pitched most directly at those sceptical party elites and donors who are banking on him as an alternative and who are increasingly impatient with his sometimes passive performances.
Many mainstream Republicans believe Mr Trump would struggle to defeat Mrs Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front runner. The master strategist of Mr George W. Bush's campaigns, Mr Karl Rove, warned a luncheon of Republican governors and donors in Washington on Feb 19 that Mr Trump's increasingly likely nomination would be catastrophic for the party.
Republicans have ruefully acknowledged that there were ample opportunities to battle Mr Trump earlier; more than one plan was drawn up only to be rejected.
However, Mr Trump on Sunday issued a warning of his own - that he could yet consider running as an independent if the party eventually chooses another candidate.
"The Republican establishment has been pushing for lightweight Senator Marco Rubio to say anything to 'hit' Trump. I signed the pledge - careful," he tweeted, referring to a pledge that all candidates signed to back the party's eventual nominee.
Mr Rubio's headfirst lunge into a bout with Mr Trump was a striking turnaround that the Florida senator himself calls disappointing. But it 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 this would be a campaign only about ideas," Mr Rubio told a crowd of more than 3,000 hereas he accused Mr Trump of being a fraud, a threat to national security and possibly a racist.
Rubio adviser Todd Harris said: "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."
So far, Rubio supporters seem surprised by, if open to, his change in tone. Retiree Alison Whiteley, who saw him speak in Oklahoma City last week, said the race had turned uglier but she did not blame Mr Rubio. "Rubio would not be acting like this if it wasn't for Trump," she said.
Close behind Mr Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas tried to keep himself in the thick of the Republican fight by attacking Mr Trump over his use of foreign workers.
"The only campaign, the only candidate, in position to beat Trump on Super Tuesday is us," he said.
But candidate John Kasich, the Ohio governor, all but conceding his Super Tuesday chances, lamented the demolition derby-like primary contest. "Frankly," he said, "it is disgraceful."
NEW YORK TIMES
Trump under fire over KKK, fascist dictator
WASHINGTON • Mr Donald Trump, the leading Republican in the race for the United States presidency, has come under fire for passing up a chance to condemn former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader David Duke and other white supremacists - as well as for retweeting a quote from Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.
"I know nothing about David Duke," Mr Trump said on CNN on Sunday, when asked about the well-known founder of a modern-day branch of the racist organisation. "I know nothing about white supremacists."
Mr Duke had voiced backing for Mr Trump on his radio programme recently, and praised him for "taking on the Jewish establishment", although he stopped short of endorsing him. He also said that "voting against Mr Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage".
Voting against Mr Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.
MR DAVID DUKE, former Ku Klux Klan leader.
Asked on CNN to distance himself from Mr Duke and other white nationalists, and to publicly condemn their racism, Mr Trump said he was "pretty sure" he had never met Mr Duke, a former state representative in Louisiana who has also campaigned for the US Senate and various other public offices.
"You wouldn't want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about," Mr Trump said. "If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them. And, certainly, I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong."
Mr Trump's top Republican competitors jumped on the remarks.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio said that "we cannot be a party that nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan". His fellow candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, posted on Twitter: "Really sad. @realDonaldTrump you're better than this. We should all agree, racism is wrong, KKK is abhorrent."
Last year, a technology blog unearthed a 1927 news report stating that Fred Trump - Mr Trump's father - was one of seven men arrested during clashes between KKK members and police in New York.
Mr Trump denied that "ridiculous" report, telling Britain's Daily Mail: "He was never arrested. He has nothing to do with this. This never happened."
The property billionaire and former reality television star was also forced on Sunday to defend retweeting a quote from Mussolini.
"It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep," Mr Trump retweeted, without attribution to the dictator who allied with Nazi Germany in World War II.
On NBC, Mr Trump said it was "a very interesting quote", adding, "what difference does it make whether it is Mussolini or somebody else?"
The website Gawker took credit for luring Mr Trump into retweeting the quote, saying it created a Twitter account in December specifically for the purpose of fooling the candidate into doing so.
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Clinton riding high
COLUMBIA (South Carolina) • Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton aims to build an impregnable lead on "Super Tuesday", the most consequential day of the US presidential nominations calendar.
Riding high after a landslide victory in last Saturday's South Carolina primary, Mrs Clinton has set her sights on a possible face-off in the Nov 8 presidential election with Mr Donald Trump, the favourite for the Republican nomination.
"Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great," she told supporters in South Carolina, taking a jab at his campaign slogan,"Make America Great Again".
Despite what you hear, we don't need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great.
MRS CLINTON, taking a jab at Mr Trump's campaign slogan.
Mrs Clinton said she was not taking anything for granted after crushing her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders by 48 percentage points in South Carolina.
As the heightened chance of a Trump nomination looms, Mrs Clinton's backers have reaffirmed their support for the former secretary of state, saying that it is she, not Mr Sanders, who is best equipped to take down the Republican contender in a head-to-head showdown in November.
Ms Rosilyne Scott, 58, cast her vote early for Mrs Clinton ahead of today's nominating contest in Texas, calling the prospect of a Trump presidency "frightening".
Amid Mrs Clinton's renewed momentum against Mr Sanders, donors have also found resolve.
One Clinton fund-raiser in California said her recent victories in Nevada and South Carolina have prompted more people to donate to her campaign and to attend her campaign events. He said he had raised US$10,000 (S$14,100) for the Clinton campaign in the past week alone.
A Trump-Clinton election would embody an outsider-versus-establishment battle in American politics. Mr Trump has never been elected to public office, while the former first lady has been a player in Washington for decades.
South Carolina was Mrs Clinton's third victory in the first four Democratic contests, raising more questions about whether Mr Sanders, with his socialist leaning, will be able to expand his support beyond his base of predominantly white liberals.
Exit polls showed Mrs Clinton winning big in the state with almost every constituency for her. She won nine of every 10 black voters, as well as women, men, urban, suburban, rural, very liberal and conservative voters.
Mr Sanders was ahead among voters between ages 18 and 29, and among white men.
Still, the Democratic candidates agreed on one thing on Sunday. Mr Sanders tweeted that "America's first black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK", referring to the Ku Klux Klan. Mrs Clinton quickly re-tweeted Mr Sanders' comment.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS