The tumultuous presidential primary season barreled toward a potentially decisive day for both Republicans and Democrats, with enough delegates up for grabs Tuesday to turn Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from front-runners to likely nominees.
The biggest prizes are Florida and Ohio, states with a long history of making or breaking White House aspirations. Missouri, Illinois, and North Carolina also offer a crucial cache of delegates that could help Trump and Clinton pull further away from their rivals.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio hoped the two big states would give them a boost instead. Kasich seemed to have a better chance at that than Rubio.
The contests come at a remarkable moment in the presidential race for Republicans. Animosity toward Trump has risen to the point where he can rarely get through an event without being interrupted by protesters. The front-runner is also under scrutiny for appearing to encourage his supporters to physically confront those protesters, deepening divisions within the Republican Party.
In a lightly veiled jab at Trump, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said candidates “need to take responsibility for the environment at their events.”
“There is never an excuse for condoning violence, or even a culture that presupposes it,” Ryan told WRJN, a radio station in Racine, Wisconsin.
Even with the new controversy, Trump holds a comfortable lead in the GOP delegate count and could put himself well on his way to the nomination if he sweeps Tuesday’s contests. During a campaign stop Monday in Tampa, Trump was already eying the general election.
“If we win Florida and we win Ohio, we can go and attack Hillary,” he said.
Heading into Tuesday, the billionaire businessman is locked in a tight contest in Ohio with Kasich, the state’s governor. Seeking a final boost in his home state, Kasich spent Monday campaigning alongside Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee.
“This is the guy Ohio has to vote for, and America’s counting on you,” Romney told the crowd at a Kasich event in North Canton. While Romney has not endorsed Kasich, he’s said he’ll do whatever is needed to help all of Trump’s rivals.
Florida Sen. Rubio also hopes to block Trump in a do-or-die primary in his home state, though polling suggests he’s slipping further behind. .
“Tomorrow’s the day where we are going to shock the country,” Rubio said during a stop in Jacksonville.
If Trump sweeps Tuesday’s contests, he’d still have to keep winning in order to clinch the nomination. But he would cross an important threshold by collecting more than 50 percent of the delegates awarded so far.
Trump’s closest competition has come from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has defeated the businessman in seven states. He’s also the only remaining GOP candidate who still says unequivocally that he would support Trump if he becomes the nominee.
Among Democrats, Clinton has been itching to look ahead to the general election but continues to face persistent competition from Bernie Sanders. While Clinton maintains a commanding lead in the delegate count, Sanders breathed new life into his campaign with a surprising victory last week in Michigan.
Reprising a theme that helped propel that Michigan win, Sanders on Monday pounded Clinton’s past support for trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.