Republicans take Florida stage with White House at stake


Miami (AFP)

Republican White House hopefuls gathered for their heavyweight debate Thursday in Florida, a crown jewel in the nominations race, with Marco Rubio forced into a last stand on his home turf against frontrunner Donald Trump.

Floridians vote on March 15, along with residents of Ohio and Illinois. All three big states are winner-take-all in the Republican delegate race, the first such contests in the 2016 cycle, and many in the party see next Tuesday's votes as the last best chance to derail the billionaire real estate moguls' insurgent candidacy.

Just as Trump sought to appear more presidential and unify the party, looking beyond the contentious primaries to a possible general election showdown with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, he unleashed a stunning new provocation.

"I think Islam hates us," Trump told CNN in an interview aired late Wednesday in the latest example of his controversial bluster. "There's something there, a tremendous hatred there. We have to get to the bottom of it."

Trump caused a global firestorm in December when he called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Four men will take the stage in Miami: Trump, Senator Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Trump is by all accounts the man to beat. He emerged strengthened by victories Tuesday in Michigan, Mississippi and Hawaii, and has now won 15 of 24 races.

And he has boldly predicted that he will win Rubio's Florida and Kasich's Ohio, which would essentially be the nail in the coffin for their campaigns.

"If I win those two I think it's over," Trump told CNN Wednesday.

Rubio was championed by party luminaries as the best mainstream hope of derailing Trump, but he has performed dreadfully in several recent primary contests, including those Tuesday.

Trump leads Rubio in Florida by a dramatic 43 percent to 20 percent among likely Republican primary voters, according to a Fox News poll released Wednesday.

But Kasich leads in his own state, with 34 percent support to 29 percent for Trump and 19 percent for Cruz, according to Fox.

- Rubio on the ropes -

With his campaign on the verge of fizzling, Rubio stressed it was crucial to gang up on the frontrunner.

But in his home state, Rubio called on all Republicans to get behind him as part of his anti-Trump rallying cry, including those supporting Kasich or Cruz.

"If you are truly committed to denying Donald Trump 99 delegates in the state of Florida, then people that are voting for John Kasich or Ted Cruz, at least in Florida, need to vote for Marco Rubio. I'm the only one that has a chance to beat him here," Rubio said.

The New York real estate mogul's caustic style and incendiary rhetoric has angered some voters and influential Republicans, but he insists he can reunite the party and draw millions more to the polls.

Clinton, in her Wednesday debate against Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders, attacked Trump's use of words as "un-American."

Clinton and Sanders clashed forcefully on the debate stage in the aftermath of Sanders' stunning upset win in Michigan, with the Democratic rivals opening lines of attack on immigration.

Both said they support comprehensive immigration reform and pathways to citizenship for many of the 11 million people now living in the shadows -- something opposed by all the Republican candidates, with Trump vowing to deport millions.

But with Florida home to a large Hispanic community, Clinton and Sanders both went further by promising they would not expel children, or undocumented adults with no criminal record.

It marked a break of sorts from President Barack Obama's administration, which has come under fire for its aggressive deportation policies.

Clinton has passed the half-way point in the race to the 2,383 delegates needed to win the party's presidential nomination, after she handily defeated Sanders in the southern Gulf state of Mississippi.

But she has so far been unable to shake the resilient senator from Vermont -- or, as the moderators reminded her Wednesday, the persistent scandal over her use of a homebrew email server when she was secretary of state.

When asked whether she would drop out of the race if she is indicted over her sending or receiving classified emails on the unsecure system, an exasperated Clinton bristled, saying "I am not even answering that question."