Election 2016

GOP badly split as Trump, Clinton seek Super Tuesday wins

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds a phone for a photo during a campaign event, Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Springfield, Mass.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds a phone for a photo during a campaign event, Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Springfield, Mass. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

VALDOSTA, Ga. — On the eve of Super Tuesday’s crucial primaries, a sharp new divide erupted between Republicans who pledge to fall in line behind Donald Trump if he wins their party’s nomination and others who insist they can never back the bombastic billionaire.

The fissure could have major implications beyond the primaries, exposing the looming challenges in uniting the party after the election, no matter who wins.

Nebraska‘s Ben Sasse, a rising star among conservatives, became the first current senator to publicly raise the prospect of backing a third party option if Trump clinches the nomination. In a letter posted on Facebook late Sunday, Sasse urged Republicans to consider whether a party led by Trump would still represent their interests.

“If our party is no longer working for the things we believe in — like defending the sanctity of life, stopping Obamacare, protecting the Second Amendment, etc. — then people of good conscience should stop supporting that party until it is reformed,” he wrote.

The Associated Press asked Republican senators and governors across the country if they would support Trump if he secured the nomination. Just under half of those who responded would not commit to backing him, foreshadowing a potentially extraordinary break this fall.

“I am increasingly concerned by Donald Trump’s statements and behavior, and I have serious concerns about his ability to win the general election and provide presidential leadership,” Indiana Sen. Dan Coats said in a statement to AP.

The concern among Republican leaders appeared to grow in light of Trump’s refusal to immediately disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s support.

Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, called that “disqualifying.” And South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, campaigning in Atlanta alongside Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said she would “not stop fighting a man who refuses to disavow the KKK.”

Trump said he had not understood the interviewer who first raised the question about Duke, and he did later repudiate him. “How many times do I have to continue to disavow people?” he said.

Several high-profile Republicans and conservative writers have embraced an anti-Trump social media campaign, using the Twitter hashtag “NeverTrump.”

Trump has won three of four early primary contests, roiling a party that had assumed his populist appeal with voters would fizzle. Instead, he’s only grown stronger and appears to be in commanding position heading into Super Tuesday, the biggest single-day delegate haul of the year.

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