HOUSTON — Voters headed to the polls across the South and New England on Tuesday morning, casting ballots in a day-long contest that could secure the front-runner status of both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, even as their rivals launched a concerted push to stave off their coronations.
The day before, presidential hopefuls made frantic sprints across the country in anticipation of a massive day of voting across nearly a dozen states. By Tuesday morning, they were making their pitches to Americans on the air and in photo-ops at polling spots in areas poised to support them.
Many voters — including in Virginia, where voting began at 6 a.m. — were noticeably unenthusiastic about their choices on the presidential primary ballot, even as they felt obligated to turn out.
In Arlington, Va., one defense contractor, Nick Bryant, said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the only one on the GOP ballot looking for middle ground.
“Out of the options, he’s the better one, but I wish he had more experience,” said Bryant, 54. “If both parties dig in their heels and stick to their guns, how do we govern? I really like Kasich, I like his calm and even tone, his demeanor. But you have to get ratings now, and he hasn’t.”
Bob Green, 68, a lawyer, voted for Clinton based on the expertise she has developed over the course of her career. “Politics is the only profession in America where experience is devalued,” he said. “I think she’ll destroy Trump. If they put the bloodhounds on him that they put on her, you’ll be surprised at what they find.”
Others, however, were less inspired by Clinton. Barbara Kennedy, 51, a freelance writer who cast her ballot at the same polling station as Green, said she considered Clinton safe but uninspiring. “I was just thinking about all the hope we had eight years ago,” she said. “Now you’ve got to choose the best of the worst.”
And Claudia Mackintosh, a 61-year old real estate agent voting in Norfolk. Va., said she was opting for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) instead.
“It’s tragic. I would love to see a woman president, but I just don’t trust her,” she said. “My perception is that she’s controlled by the corporate donors.”
In suburban Richmond, where a tea party unknown named Dave Brat unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary two years ago, some voters were still in a throw-the-bums-out mood.
“The establishment had its turn and didn’t get the job done,” said Ben Alred, a 52-year-old middle school history teacher who cast his ballot for Trump at Maybeury Elementary School in Henrico County.
“My feeling is, we need someone who can make definitive decisions and has no ties to the infrastructure in Washington,” he said. “He’s definitely someone who’s not aligned with any party too deeply.”
Meanwhile, a handful of candidates gave interviews with morning anchors in an effort to sway undecided voters. In a telephone interview with the Fox News Channel, Trump called on Rubio to drop out of the race.
“I think he has to get out,” Trump said. “You know, he hasn’t won anything, and Ted Cruz very rightly points out, you know, Marco has not won.”
In a separate phone interview,George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s “Good Morning America” asked the GOP front-runner whether he categorically rejects the support of all white supremacists, a controversy that erupted over the weekend when Trump did not immediately disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during a CNN interview.
“Of course I am,” he responded. “Of course I am.”
Trump also suggested he is expanding the base of support for the GOP by appealing to Democrats and independents, even though some say he is alienating some traditional Republican backers.
“We have tremendous numbers of people coming in, and the Republican Party is growing larger,” he said. If it fails to do that, he added, “it’s not going to win.”
While voting results could give Trump a critical boost over his closest rivals, a well-funded super PAC is ramping up its effort to discredit the New York businessman with a new television advertisement that portrays him as a predatory huckster who scammed working- and middle-class Americans.
The 60-second ad, which will begin airing Wednesday on stations across the country at a cost of more than $1 million, centers on Trump University, the billionaire mogul’s for-profit enterprise that promised to teach students the tricks of the real estate trade and is now defunct and the subject of a fraud suit.
The ad, titled “Scam,” is the latest component of the stop-Trump campaign of Our Principles PAC, a conservative group funded in part by Marlene Ricketts, a major Republican donor and the wife of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts.
The attack echoes themes that Rubio, who is trying to unite the GOP’s anti-Trump forces under his own banner, has advanced as he has addressed swelling crowds in suburban areas.
In Massachusetts and Minnesota, Sanders continued to draw the mega-rallies of enthusiastic supporters that have become the hallmark of his campaign for the Democratic nomination. Republican Ted Cruz pleaded with voters in Texas for their support — banking on a primary victory in his home state to jump-start his sputtering candidacy and stop Trump’s march as the runaway leader for the nomination.
Both visibly fatigued from weeks of breakneck travel, Cruz and Rubio campaigned for Super Tuesday as if they were cramming for an exam. The senators volleyed stinging character attacks at Trump, one after another, in a desperate move to halt the billionaire mogul’s momentum.
But if the polls and roaring crowds that greeted Trump in Virginia and Georgia on Monday were any indication, he is steamrolling toward a triumphant showing Tuesday. Republican primaries or caucuses will take place in 11 states — seven across the South, as well as in Alaska, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Vermont — and the only one Trump is not expected to win is Texas, where Cruz appears to be the favorite.
“You don’t get to abuse our immigration laws and take advantage of American workers, and suddenly call yourself a champion of working men and women,” Cruz said. He added later: “If you don’t want to see Donald Trump as the nominee, if you don’t want to see Hillary Clinton as the next president, then stand with us, tomorrow, on Super Tuesday.”
At a rowdy rally at Radford University in Virginia, Trump sold himself as the polling front-runner and as a more effective leader than either of the freshman senators. He repeatedly referred to them by demeaning nicknames — “Lying Ted Cruz” and “Little Marco Rubio” — and mocked the latter for his frequent sweating and sipping of water.
On the Democratic side, Clinton was widely expected to sweep six Southern states, including Virginia, where her longtime friend Terry McAuliffe is governor. Clinton’s trouncing of Sanders in South Carolina on Saturday, by nearly 50 percentage points, revealed an overwhelming advantage among African American voters that should play out in the minority-heavy South on Tuesday. Less clear is whether her winning streak will dampen Sanders’s previous advantage among the five other states at stake — Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Sanders’s home state of Vermont.
Although Clinton is still waging a hard-fought nomination battle against Sanders, she also began pivoting this week to her likely general-election opponent, Trump.
On Monday, Clinton lingered on what she called “scapegoating” and “finger-pointing” in the Republican race — clearly signaling her willingness to criticize Trump.
“The mean-spiritedness, the hateful rhetoric, the insults — that’s not who we are,” Clinton said in Springfield, Mass., a day ahead of the Super Tuesday voting that is expected to place her firmly in the lead for the Democratic nomination. “It really undermines our fabric as a nation.”
Sanders, meanwhile, cast his vote early Tuesday at a polling station in Burlington, Vt., the city where he served as mayor in the 1980s. Vermont is one state he seems certain to win.
“I will tell you: After a lot of thought, I voted for me for president,” a smiling Sanders told one man after taking a selfie with him.
The man patted him on the back and laughed. “Congratulations, Bernie. Good luck out there,” he said.
Outside, Sanders told reporters it was an “enormously important day.”
“Today is the day people can stand up and say ‘no’ to a rigged economy,” he said.
More delegates are up for grabs Tuesday than on any other single day in the Democratic nominating calendar.
Advisers to Rubio and Cruz hoped for a clarifying verdict Tuesday that would winnow the nominating contest to two men: Trump and one of them.
But both camps saw signs of trouble. Cruz has continued to find it difficult to unite a conservative coalition of evangelicals and self-described liberty voters. Kris Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas and a high-profile opponent of illegal immigration, announced Monday that he was endorsing Trump, joining two fellow immigration crusaders, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and former Arizona governor Jan Brewer, on the Trump bandwagon.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who remains a long shot for the GOP nomination, said Tuesday on Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” that he plans to remain in the race, because his supporters are expressing their beliefs through his candidacy.
“And I think they have a right to be heard,” he said. “At some point, the people will wake up. The question is, when will that happen?”
Carson added that many Americans are dismayed with the current state of their government. “And the people are the only ones who can rectify the situation.”
Wagner reported from Burlington, Vt.; Eilperin from Washington. Katie Zezima in Houston; Patricia Sullivan in Arlington, Va.; Laura Vozzella in Richmond, Va. Abby Phillip in Massachusetts and Virginia; Anne Gearan and Paul Kane in Washington; Robert Costa in Atlanta; Jose A. DelReal in Nashville; Fenit Nirappil in Norfolk, Va.; Ed O’Keefe in Alcoa, Tenn.; and David Weigel in Castleton, Vt., contributed to this report.