YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio, USA – The 6 remaining White House hopefuls made a frantic push for votes Monday, March 14, on the eve of make-or-break nominating contests, with Donald Trump's Republican rivals desperate to bar his path after a weekend of violence on the campaign trail.
Dubbed "Super Tuesday 2" by US media, the latest major date in the run-up to November's presidential election will see Democratic and Republican primary contests in the states of Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.
But violent clashes and protests at Trump rallies over the weekend dominated US headlines, with rivals in both parties accusing the billionaire real estate mogul of creating a toxic campaign environment.
The latest polls nevertheless showed the Republican frontrunner in a position to win every state except Ohio, where John Kasich, the state's governor, holds a slender lead in some surveys.
A Kasich victory in Ohio may be the last chance to derail Trump's march to the Republican nomination in July, especially as the party moves to a winner-takes-all format in terms of the delegates accorded for each primary win.
Florida, Illinois and Ohio are the biggest prizes on Tuesday, March 15, for both parties, as each state offers a high number of delegates.
On the Democratic side, frontrunner Hillary Clinton is poised to extend her lead over rival Bernie Sanders, if polls prove accurate.
She is easily ahead in Florida, but Ohio appeared to be a tougher contest, where the former secretary of state only held a five-point lead, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll released Monday.
In a sign of the stakes involved, Trump cancelled a rally Monday in Florida, where he has a 20-point lead over Marco Rubio, the US senator from the Sunshine State, to campaign in Ohio.
Campaigning with Kasich on Monday was Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who has tried to mobilize his party against Trump.
Also campaigning in Ohio was Sanders, who drew about 2,000 people at a rally in Youngstown and sought to court blue-collar workers by slamming what he called "disastrous" US trade policies over the past 20 years that he said had cost America "millions of decent paying jobs."
"If we have a good vote, and people come out, we're going to win in Ohio," said the 74-year-old Sanders.
The clashes that erupted at a Trump rally in Chicago on Friday marked an escalation in the tensions that have trailed the Republican candidate.
Protesters turned up at a rally staged by the 69-year-old billionaire in Hickory, North Carolina again Monday, but this time, he patiently waited for their chants to subside.
"There's no violence," he said. "It's a movement, it's a love fest."
He acknowledged there was "anger from all sides including from our side" but added: "We're not angry people. We're all good people. There's anger at the incompetence."
Nevertheless, Trump's invective against immigrants, Muslims, Hispanics and other minorities have become a staple of his campaign, drawing roars of approval from his supporters but also increasingly aggressive protests.
On Saturday, March 12, a protester rushed the stage as Trump was winding up a speech near Dayton, Ohio.
"I was thinking that Donald Trump is a bully, and he is nothing more than that," Thomas DiMassimo, a 22-year old college student who was charged with disorderly conduct and inciting panic, told CNN.
Tensions were palpable at Trump's campaign stops, with Secret Service agents and police ringing the candidate.
Trump has rejected out of hand any suggestion that his rhetorical excesses have created a climate of violence, blaming Sanders supporters for sowing trouble – and threatening to respond in kind by sending supporters to picket the Democratic candidate's rallies.
The Vermont senator responded bluntly at a CNN Democratic town hall event: "Donald Trump is a pathological liar."
"In my view, the American people will never elect a president who insults Mexicans, who insults Muslims, who insults women, who insults African-Americans," he said in Youngstown.
Clinton, who was campaigning in Chicago Monday, has accused the Republican frontrunner of engaging in "political arson" and "trafficking in hate and fear."
"I am so worried about our country and what could happen if we don't band together to elect a president that can represent all of America," she said Monday.
Trump's Republican rivals also seemed shaken by the ugly turn in a campaign that has for months been immersed in mudslinging and name-calling.
Rubio, who like Kasich faces a do-or-die test in Tuesday's vote in his home state, called Trump's language "dangerous."
"If we reach a point in this country where we can't have a debate about politics without it getting to levels of violence and anger," Rubio told CNN, "we're going to lose our republic." – Michael Mathes, AFP / Rappler.com