BY ABBY PHILLIP, PHILLIP RUCKER AND JULIET EILPERIN
THE WASHINGTON POST
Voting was underway Tuesday in two states – Mississippi and Michigan – that are widely expected to solidify the leads of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in their respective nominating contests.
The latest day of voting, which will also include a Republican primary in Idaho and GOP caucuses in Hawaii, comes at a time when the GOP establishment is in turmoil over how to stop Trump. On the Democratic side, Clinton’s advantage in recent polls in Michigan and Mississippi suggests easy victories that would render Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s path to the Democratic nomination all but impossible.
While Clinton hoped to effectively clinch her party’s nomination once the two states tallied Tuesday’s votes, Sanders made it clear he was not giving up without a fight. He announced shortly before 3 p.m. that his campaign is filing suit in federal court to block a move by the secretary of state in Ohio that would keep 17-year-olds from voting in the state’s primaries.
Under current practice, anyone who will be 18 by the date of the general election is allowed to participate in the primaries. Sanders, who has performed exceptionally strongly with young voters in previous primaries and caucuses, made the announcement as his chartered jet was about to leave Michigan en route to Miami.
On the Republican side, establishment figures continued their barrage of attacks against Trump. On Monday, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney recorded a phone call paid for by the campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that is being sent to Republicans in all four states voting Tuesday.
“Tomorrow you have the opportunity to vote for a Republican nominee for president,” Romney says in the call. “I believe these are critical times that demand a serious, thoughtful commander in chief. If we Republicans were to choose Donald Trump as our nominee, I believe that the prospects for a safe and prosperous future would be greatly diminished — and I’m convinced Donald Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton. So please vote tomorrow for a candidate who can defeat Hillary Clinton and who can make us proud.”
Romney also recorded a similar call paid for by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, targeted at Michigan households with registered Republican voters.
Trump still leads his GOP rivals, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, but the margin has narrowed and the party is now deeply divided over his candidacy. Trump maintains the support of 34 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, compared with 25 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), 18 percent for Rubio and 13 percent for Kasich.
In private conversations in recent days at a Republican Governors Association retreat in Park City, Utah, and at a gathering of conservative policy minds and financiers in Sea Island, Ga., there was an emerging consensus that Trump is vulnerable and that a continued blitz of attacks could puncture the billionaire mogul’s support and leave him limping onto the convention floor.
“I just don’t think he’s going to have enough delegates,” Kasich said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” adding, “At a convention, I think we’re going to pick somebody who can be commander in chief.”
But the slow-bleed strategy is risky and hinges on Trump losing Florida, Illinois and Ohio on March 15; wins in all three would set him on track to amass the majority of delegates. Even as some party figures see glimmers of hope that Trump can be overtaken, others believe any stop-Trump efforts could prove futile.
This moment of confusion for the Republican Party is compounded by the absence of a clear alternative to Trump. Cruz, Rubio and Kasich each are collecting delegates and vowing to fight through the spring. Among GOP elites, the only agreed-upon mission is to minimize Trump’s share of the delegates to enable an opponent to mount a credible convention challenge.
“It’s one thing if [Trump] goes to the convention and he’s got 48 percent, 49 percent of the delegates,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Rubio supporter, said in an interview. “Then it’s a hard thing to see if there’s a convention floor battle. But if he goes to the convention and he’s got 35 or 40 percent, that’s a whole different thing.”
Cruz, who made a hastily scheduled stopover in Michigan late Monday, arriving in Grand Rapids at 11 p.m., made a pitch in a bar to hundreds of voters who ate complimentary pasta as they waited for him.
“Poll after poll after poll, Hillary trounces Donald Trump,” Cruz said. “To those 65 percent of Republicans who think Donald Trump would be a disaster as the nominee, I want to encourage you to join so many others and unite behind this campaign.”
On Tuesday, Alex Ross, a 20-year-old student from Grand Rapids, said he was voting for Cruz and had confidence he could secure the nomination.
“Cruz is within striking distance of Trump, and after Florida it’s very likely Rubio will drop out,” he said. “With Rubio gone, it’s likely that Cruz beats Trump every time.”
Kasich showed no signs of backing down during his MSNBC interview Tuesday. “You can feel the momentum here in Michigan, thank goodness,” he said.
His base of support was evident in the views of voters such as Kate Hude, a 38-year-old attorney in Lansing who said she supported Kasich and feared that the other candidates “are destroying their party.”
“I’m anti-Trump, anti-Cruz, anti-Rubio, and the Democrats don’t need my help right now,” she said.
Trump, meanwhile, made the rounds on several television shows Tuesday morning. In a phone interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” host George Stephanopoulos asked Trump whether the barrage of attacks was “drawing some blood.”
“No, I think we’re doing very well,” he replied. “But certainly they’re spending tens of millions of dollars fighting me, the establishment.”
Trump noted he was “way up” in the polls in Michigan and Mississippi, was ahead in Hawaii and “doing well in Idaho,” adding: “I love their potatoes.”
When Stephanopoulos noted that multiple critics have compared him to Adolf Hitler in recent weeks, Trump dismissed the comparison. “I don’t know about the Hitler comparison. I hadn’t heard that.”
“I have to be strong,” he added a minute later. “I have a tremendous following.”
In a separate interview with NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday, Trump said he was surprised that some people thought his decision to ask supporters at rallies to take a pledge to vote for him resembled Nazi rallies more than half a century ago.
“Honestly, until this phone call, I didn’t realize it was a problem,” he said. “If it’s offensive, if there’s anything wrong with it, I wouldn’t do it.”
In a separate interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he called the charge “ridiculous.”
Among the Democrats, Sanders held yet another series of large rallies across Michigan on Monday, including one that attracted 5,700 supporters in Ann Arbor. There, he scrambled to deny Clinton’s assertion in a debate Sunday night that he opposed funding the 2008 auto industry bailout, a claim he called “absolutely false.”
Sanders debuted a new minute-long radio ad Monday that accuses Clinton of “trying to distort the truth about Bernie’s record” and says the senator from Vermont “has always been on the side of Michigan workers and working families.”
“Of course I voted to defend the automobile industry,” Sanders told the Ann Arbor crowd.
During the CNN debate broadcast Sunday from Flint, Mich., Clinton said there was “a pretty big difference” between the two candidates on the $14 billion auto rescue package, which was of particular interest to voters in Michigan, as well as in Ohio, which holds its primary next week.
“I voted to save the auto industry,” Clinton said during the debate. “He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry.”
Left unmentioned was an earlier Sanders vote in favor of the bailout. The vote that Clinton referenced was on legislation to release funds for a Wall Street bailout, some of which were instead used to help auto manufacturers.
“What I did not vote for was a middle-class bailout for the crooks on Wall Street,” Sanders told his audience there.
Clinton ended her campaigning in Michigan on the eve of the primary, urging her supporters to vote so that she can quickly wrap up the Democratic nomination.
“The sooner I can become your nominee, the more I can begin to turn my attention to the Republicans,” Clinton told the crowd of nearly 900 in the Motor City.
As voters went to the polls, Clinton spent Tuesday morning campaigning at a local shop, Avalon International Breads. In what has become an election-day ritual, she ordered espresso and pastries, posed for dozens of selfies and urged patrons to support her.
She is expected to campaign in Cleveland – which will vote on March 15 – as results in Michigan come in on Tuesday night.
Her advisers have sought to raise expectations for Sanders, who is believed to have an advantage among the working class, whiter Democratic electorate here. But polls show that Clinton has as much as a double-digit lead.
African American voters are expected to once again play a role in bolstering Clinton’s candidacy. In Michigan, she has championed the residents of the majority-black city of Flint, which has been beset by a lead poisoning water crisis. Clinton received the endorsement of the city’s mayor and made her response to the lead crisis a major part of her outreach to African Americans.
And she elicited roars from the crowd when she added of Trump: “We will not let a person like that ever become president of the United States.”
Former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Monday that he will not run for president this election cycle.
“I’m flattered that some think I could provide this kind of leadership,” he said in an essay posted on the website Bloomberg View. “But when I look at the data, it’s clear to me that if I entered the race, I could not win.”
Bloomberg, 74, one of the world’s wealthiest men, used the essay to put to rest months of speculation over whether he would enter the race – and thereby scramble an already chaotic contest – as well as to criticize Trump and Cruz.