Obama calls for a halt to "vicious" tone and violence on campaign trail

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Friends of Ireland luncheon on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, USA, on March 15, 2016.
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Friends of Ireland luncheon on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, USA, on March 15, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Tuesday (March 15) he was dismayed about violence and divisiveness on the US presidential campaign trail and, in a reference to Republican front-runner Donald Trump, called on leaders to clean up the tone of the race.

"We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities, at Americans who don't look like us or pray like us or vote like we do," Obama said during an event on Capitol Hill.

"We've seen misguided attempts to shut down that speech. However offensive it may be, we live in a country where free speech is one of the most important rights that we hold. In response to those attempts, we've seen actual violence. And we've heard silence from too many of our leaders."

Obama spoke as Americans in five states - Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina - voted in the latest round of primaries to select the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates for the November election.

Trump has drawn wide criticism, including from within the Republican establishment, for a campaign that has included calling Mexican immigrants rapists and proposing a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.

There have been some clashes in recent days at his rallies between his supporters and protesters. Trump, a New York real estate magnate, has dismissed accusations that he has fuelled the violent atmosphere.

Obama said this year's campaign cycle was not an accurate reflection of the United States.

"It has to stop," the Democratic president said, describing the atmosphere of the campaign as "vicious," and adding that the behaviour "can undermine our democracy, our society and even our economy."

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, told reporters that Trump had called him on Tuesday.

"I took the opportunity to recommend to him that no matter who may be triggering these violent expressions or conflicts that we've seen in some of these rallies, it might be a good idea to condemn that and discourage it," McConnell said.

He declined to comment on Trump's response.

US Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Governor John Kasich are challenging Trump for the nomination.

"I suspect that all of us can recall some intemperate words that we regret. Certainly I can," Obama said. "And while some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, all of us are responsible for reversing it."