PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and John Kasich suggested Saturday they may not support Donald Trump if he becomes the GOP nominee, as violence at the front-runner’s rallies deepened the party’s chaotic chasm.
Tensions ran high at Trump’s latest rally, when U.S. Secret Service agents briefly formed a protective ring around the presidential candidate, then left the stage and allowed him to continue speaking at a hangar in Dayton, Ohio.
It was not immediately clear why the agents rushed the stage to surround Trump, who appeared to jolt after hearing something coming from the audience behind him.
A defiant Trump has denied that he has encouraged violence at his events. But the scenes from his aborted rally in Chicago on Friday night appeared to be a final straw for some rivals who had pledged, despite deep concerns about his qualifications, to support the billionaire businessman if he were to become the nominee.
Rubio said it was “getting harder every day” to keep his word. Kasich said the “toxic environment” Trump is creating “makes it very, extremely difficult” to support him.
“To see Americans slugging themselves at a political rally deeply disturbed me,” Kasich said while campaigning in Cincinnati. “We’re better than that.”
The extraordinary shift by the two came just a few days before Tuesday’s elections in five delegate-rich states.
Trump insisted he’d done nothing to exacerbate tensions, despite having previously encouraged his supporters to aggressively — and sometimes physically — stop protesters from interrupting his raucous rallies.
“I don’t take responsibility. Nobody’s been hurt at our rallies,” Trump told CNN late Friday, one of several interviews he did as cable networks broadcast footage of the skirmishes both inside and outside the Chicago arena where he had planned to speak.
In Dayton, the audience chanted Trump’s name as the Secret Service agents rushed the stage. Trump did not explain what had happened, but said: “Thank you for the warning. I was ready for ’em, but it’s much better if the cops do it, don’t we agree?”
Both the Secret Service and Trump campaign staff did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment.
Trump also had stops scheduled Saturday in Cleveland and Kansas City, Missouri.
His unexpected political success has roiled the Republican Party. Most leaders expected his populist appeal would fade as voting contests began and largely avoided criticizing even his most extreme comments out of fear of alienating his supporters.
But after 24 primary contests, Trump has only grown stronger and leads his rivals in the all-important delegate count.
GOP leaders are grasping for a last-ditch idea stop Trump from claiming the nomination, from talking about a contested convention to discussing whether to rally around a yet-to-be-determined third-party candidate. All are long shots at best and would likely have the effect of ripping the Republican Party apart in irreparable ways.
Rubio and Kasich must win their home state contests Tuesday in order to stay in the race. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, closest to Trump in the delegate count, has urged both to drop out so he can take on the front-runner in a head-to-head contest.
Cruz said late Friday that Trump has created “an environment that encourages this sort of nasty discourse.”
“When the candidate urges supporters to engage in physical violence, to punch people in the face, the predictable consequence of that is that is escalates,” he said.
The chaos in Chicago was sparked in part by Trump’s decision to cancel his rally after skirmishes broke out in the crowd that, unlike past Trump events, was packed with protesters.
Some isolated confrontations took place afterward. Police reported arresting five people. Many anti-Trump attendees had rushed onto the floor of the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion, jumping up and down with their arms up in the air.
As Trump attempts to unify a fractured Republican Party ahead of Tuesday’s slate of winner-take-all primary elections, the confrontations between his legion of loyal supporters and protesters who accuse him of stoking racial hatred have become increasingly contentious, underscoring concerns about the divisive nature of his candidacy.
In a telephone interview after postponing his event in Chicago, Trump said he didn’t “want to see people hurt or worse” at the rally, telling MSNBC, “I think we did the right thing.”
But Chicago police said they had sufficient manpower on scene to handle the situation and did not recommended Trump cancel the rally. That decision was made “independently” by the campaign, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.