WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —Donald Trump demanded that Republicans unify behind his campaign on Saturday night, arguing that conservatives who don’t back his campaign should fear the consequences of a third-party bid.
In another boisterous victory speech-press conference combo, Trump called on Sen. Marco Rubio to leave the race and suggested that he might not even bother to campaign if the “#NeverTrump” movement challenges him in the general election. Such a move, he warned, would guarantee Hillary Clinton a chance to replace the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia.
“If they run a third party or an independent party, if they do that, it will make it impossible for the Republican candidate, on the assumption it’s me, to win,” Trump said. “The Democrats would have an absolute free run. Probably you wouldn’t even campaign because it would be impossible to win.”
He added, “As a party we should come together and stop this foolishness.”
Trump delayed his remarks in West Palm Beach, Florida, for nearly two hours until word came that he was projected to win the primary in Kentucky. (The Associated Press projected his win in Louisiana shortly after the polls closed at 9 p.m.) When he did take to the podium, Trump said the race for the Republican nomination is down to him and Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I would love to take on Ted one-on-one, that would be so much fun,” Trump said.
He congratulated Cruz for winning caucuses in Kansas and Maine — the latter victory being predictable, Trump said, because it’s “very close to Canada, let’s face it.”
Cruz’s caucus wins in Kansas and Maine, along with his Election Day momentum in Louisiana – where his support among Saturday voters was nearly double his share of votes cast early — fanned hopes that anti-Trump forces in the Republican Party can deny the front-runner a majority of delegates and throw the nomination to a wrenching, contested convention in July.
But ultimately, Trump continued, Cruz can’t win contests in New York, New Jersey and California.
Rubio, Trump said, “had a very, very bad night, and personally, I’d call for him to drop out of the race.”
He added later, in reference to the dispute with Rubio over the implications of his hand size, “So far, everyone that’s attacked me has gone down.”
Trump dismissed opposition to his candidacy within the GOP as petulance from the corrupt elite.
“Seven months ago, before I decided to run, I was part of the establishment,” Trump said. But now the establishment is turning on him, he continued, “I’m self-funding. I’m not taking their money. They have no control. I’m gonna do what’s right for the American people.”
But Trump also struck a conciliatory note. “I will absolutely help the party fund raise,” Trump pledged in response to a question from a reporter about financing a general election campaign. Earlier this year, Trump insisted that the Republican National Committee retract a fundraising appeal that used his likeness.
However, Trump said he was “not looking for funds for myself,” adding that he is “totally self-funding my campaign.”
Trump again credited his campaign with driving heavy turnout at the Republican nominating contests, and said he’s the “only one that’s gonna beat” Clinton.
“I am the one person, trust me, that she does not want to run against,” he said. He went on to mock one of her campaign slogans, which is itself a response to his call to “Make America Great Again.”
“Her statement is ‘Make America Whole.’ That’s a terrible statement,” he said. “I think she means we’re in a hole, a deep hole, and we’re trying to dig our way out.”
Trump took questions from reporters, who were positioned seven rows behind his supporters and had to yell their questions across the ballroom, often over boos from the crowd.
Trump blamed Rubio for the debate exchange about the size of his “manhood,” as one reporter put it, and promised his discourse in the general election would make him “the most presidential candidate in history other than Honest Abe Lincoln.”
But he could not resist issuing another defense of the size of his hands, calling on a supporter in the audience, apparently a golf coach, as a witness.
“Do I hit the ball good?” Trump said to cheers and cackles from the crowd. “Do I hit it long? Is Trump strong?”
Ben Schreckinger reported from West Palm Beach, Florida, and Sarah Wheaton from Arlington, Virginia.