LEESBURG, Va. – Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump is drawing criticism for refusing to denounce an implicit endorsement from a white supremacist leader, with his main rivals, senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, using the matter to hammer the billionaire businessman just two days before multiple state primaries could put him on an irreversible path to the party’s nomination.
Trump was asked Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether he rejected support from David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, and other white supremacists after Duke told his radio followers this week that a vote against Trump was equivalent to “treason to your heritage.”
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. OK?” Trump told host Jake Tapper. “I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists.”
Trump was asked Friday by journalists how he felt about Duke’s support. He said he didn’t know anything about it and curtly said: “All right, I disavow, ok?”
WATCH: Donald Trump faces criticism after refusing to distance himself from a controversial endorsement
Trump hasn’t always claimed ignorance on Duke’s history. In 2000, he wrote a New York Times op-ed explaining why he abandoned the possibility of running for president on the Reform Party ticket. He wrote of an “underside” and “fringe element” of the party, concluding, “I leave the Reform Party to David Duke, Pat Buchanan and Lenora Fulani. That is not company I wish to keep.”
Trump’s comments sparked a wave of censures just ahead of Super Tuesday — March 1 — when 11 states hold Republican primaries. At stake are 595 delegates to the party’s national convention this summer, with 1,237 needed to win the nomination.
On the Democratic side, 865 delegates are up for grabs in Super Tuesday contests in 11 states and American Samoa. It takes 2,383 delegates to gain the Democratic nomination.
Hillary Clinton received another burst of momentum after her lopsided victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary on Saturday, fueled by an 84-16 advantage among African-Americans, a key Democratic constituency that will also play a dominant role in several Super Tuesday states.
“We got decimated, that’s what happened,” Sanders said on ABC, though he promised to continue his campaign against what he describes as a political and economic oligarchy.
The latest shake up in the Republican race comes as attention shifts to the South, with about a half dozen states in the region holding contests on Tuesday. Trump holds commanding leads across the region, with the exception of Cruz’s home state of Texas, a dynamic that puts tremendous pressure on Rubio and Cruz as they try to outlast each other and derail Trump.
Campaigning in Virginia, Rubio pounced on Trump’s latest position on Duke, shifting to a more serious tone after spending the weekend mocking his rival’s hair and “the worst spray tan in America.”
“We cannot be a party who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan,” the Florida senator told thousands of supporters gathered in Leesburg, Virginia. “Not only is that wrong, it makes him unelectable. How are we going to grow the party if we nominate someone who doesn’t repudiate the Ku Klux Klan?”
Cruz also weighed in on Sunday, calling Trump’s comments “Really sad.”
“You’re better than this,” Cruz wrote. “We should all agree, racism is wrong, KKK is abhorrent.”
Democrat Bernie Sanders also lashed out at his Republican rival on Twitter, writing: “America’s first black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK.”
Trump also garnered backlash Sunday for recently retweeting a quote from Benito Mussolini, the 20th century fascist dictator of Italy, which reads: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”
Trump told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “I know who said it. But what difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else? It’s certainly a very interesting quote.”
Like Clinton, Trump has established himself as the front-runner after winning three of the four early voting contests. That’s led Rubio and Cruz, both first-term senators, to unleash a personal and policy-based barrage against Trump, warning his nomination would be catastrophic for the Republican Party in the November election and beyond.
“We’re about to lose the conservative movement to someone who’s not a conservative and (lose) the party of Lincoln and Reagan to a con artist,” Rubio said Sunday on Fox News.
Separately, Cruz warned the “Trump train” could become “unstoppable” if he rolls to big victories Tuesday. Cruz cast Trump as a carbon copy of Hillary Clinton and suggested that not even Trump “knows what he would do” as president.
Trump, for his part, relishes his position, mocking the Republican establishment and his flailing rivals. “It’s amazing what’s going on,” he told NBC, calling his campaign a “movement.”
On CNN, Trump explained his own brand of populism. “I’m representing a lot of anger out there,” he said on CNN. “We’re not angry people, but we’re angry at the way this country’s being run (and) angry at the way the Republican Party is being run.”
Associated Press reporter Laurie Kellman contributed from Washington.