Donald Trump exuded the confidence of an emboldened Republican presidential frontrunner who has little to fear, using a rally on the eve of the Nevada caucuses to call his rival Ted Cruz “sick” and reacting to a heckler by saying: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
It was an extraordinary performance, even by Trump’s standards, alarming to those who fear the rise of a demagogue, but speaking to the apparent strength of the billionaire’s lead in Nevada and elsewhere.
Trump enjoys a double-digit lead in Nevada, which hosts the fourth state contest in the Republican race for the White House on Tuesday.
The businessman won the last two states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, although Tuesday’s caucus-style voting procedure could prove better suited to his two main rivals.
Cruz and Marco Rubio, two senators locked in a fight for the mantle of Trump’s chief challenger, spent the day trading punches as they crisscrossed Nevada for a final 24 hours of increasingly bitter campaigning.
It was undoubtedly a better day for Rubio, who received a cascade of endorsements from senior Republicans after ex-Florida governor Jeb Bush pulled out of the race at the weekend. They included the 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole and a slew of senior lawmakers.
Cruz, on the other hand, was forced to sack his national spokesman, Rick Tyler, after he circulated a video on Sunday that allegedly showed Rubio mocking the Bible as he walked past a Cruz staffer in a hotel lobby.
The row over the video, which a conservative blog wrongly said showed Rubio saying the Bible had “not many answers in it” (he had in fact said it had “all the answers in it”), marked a further deterioration in an already ugly fight between the first-term senators.
Even as Cruz told reporters he had sacked Tyler because of “a grave error of judgment”, he insisted he had been the victim of below-the-belt assaults from rivals who he said “attack us personally, impugn my integrity”.
In reality, the Texan senator’s campaign has been repeatedly accused of engaging in dirty tricks, and both Trump and Rubio are now openly calling Cruz a liar.
Both candidates repeated the allegation on Monday. “I think it’s a very disturbing pattern of deceptive campaigns and flat-out just lying to voters,” Rubio told reporters, before boarding a flight to the remote town of Elko.
At his rally in Las Vegas, Trump said of the Texan senator: “This guy Cruz has lied more than any human being. He holds up the Bible, and he lies.”
Trump went on to complain about a “phony” Cruz ad airing in Nevada that accuses Trump of wanting to leave the state’s federal lands in the hands of the government. “This guy is sick, there’s something wrong with this guy,” Trump said.
When one of two hecklers interrupted the businessman, the property magnate openly talked of violence. “You know what they used to do with guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks,” he said.
Noting the protester was smiling as he was escorted out, Trump quipped: “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell you that.” It was a remarkable comment from a presidential candidate who appears to be building a momentum that could soon be unstoppable.
"You know what I hate? There's a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches -- we're not allowed to punch back anymore," Trump said. "In the old days, you know what they used to do with guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks."
"There's a guy throwing punches, nasty as hell, screaming and everything else when we're talking, and we're talking out -- we're not allowed, the guards are very gentle with him, he's walking, like, big high fives, smiling, laughing -- I'd like to punch him in the face," Trump added, as the crowd roared in approval.
Security guards at the event later said the protester had not thrown any punches.
In his recent wins, Trump has exhibited the breadth of support that provides him with a clear path to the nomination, even if his high poll rating in Nevada masks what some anticipate will be an underlying weakness in the state.
Nevada is like Iowa in that it apportions its delegates through a caucus rather than a straight primary vote. Trump’s defeat in Iowa was largely put down to inferior campaign organisation and the lack of political experience among his supporters.
Caucuses are complicated contests that can be inaccessible to first-time voters, and both Cruz and Rubio have built superior ground games in the state. In 2012, only around 8 percent of the state’s eligible GOP caucus-goers participated in the contest – and on turnout that low a surprise is possible.
The other two candidates remaining in the GOP field – Ohio governor John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – are trailing badly and not expected to perform well in Nevada.
However, Cruz proved in Iowa that he can excite a dedicated army of deeply Christian voters. However, his performance in South Carolina, where he was effectively tied with Rubio, cast doubt over that strategy after exit polls indicated he won fewer evangelical voters than Trump.
Rubio, on paper at least, should be an especially well-suited candidate for Nevada. He spent part of his childhood in Las Vegas, where his father worked behind a bar and his mother was a hotel maid. He was also baptized as a Mormon, a key voting demographic in the state which his campaign has been courting relentlessly.
Born to Cuban parents, Rubio is competing in a state where a third of the population is Latino – although only a tiny fraction will take part in a GOP caucus. While Cruz has pursued the state’s rural, religious vote, Rubio has claimed he can diversify the party’s electorate, with some justification.
Janelle LaFleur, a hotel housekeeping manager in Reno, was already a fan of Rubio before seeing him speak at the sprawling Tuscan villa-style Peppermill casino resort and spa on Monday. But she said that had reinforced her support for the senator and she would caucus for him on Tuesday. “Being a housekeeping manager, I work with people like his mother,” she said.
However, the Florida senator is not remaining in Nevada for the results – forgoing the chance for a victory party in what many assume is a sign his campaign team is not hopeful.
Even a defeat in Nevada may not significantly dent the momentum Trump appears to have built. He looks poised for success on Super Tuesday on 1 March in which 11 states host contests.
Some pundits are anticipating he could win every state bar Texas, Cruz’s home turf. In Massachusetts, one of the Super Tuesday states, Trump leads by an incredible 50 percentage points, according to a recent poll that put his nearest rival, Rubio, on 16 percent.
Trump is undoubtedly running to win Nevada, too, touring the state on a demanding schedule to get out his base. He used his rally at the South Point casino arena in Las Vegas to repeatedly implore spectators to turn out at caucus sites on Tuesday evening.
“What the hell is a caucus? No one even know what it means,” Trump told his audience. “Forget the word caucus, just go out and vote, OK?” He added: “I don’t want to turn on the television and see Donald Trump has the biggest crowds but his people are too damn lazy.”
Trump rallies have become notorious, but this one nonetheless stood out for the passion of the audience and the swagger of the man on stage.
There is something quintessentially Trumpian about Las Vegas, a city of winners and losers in which the businessman’s named is emblazoned across one of the tallest towers, and on Tuesday he appeared in his element.
The crowd was frenzied even before his arrival, with chants of “USA” and spontaneous ripples of hand waves through the arena. Shortly before he appeared, the room went dark, and the arena was lit up with cellphone lights. Trump entered the auditorium on a long walkway that cut through the adoring crowd.
“So many American politicians lie to get a vote,” said Steven Boz, a rock musician with long, blonde hair, who relocated to Las Vegas from Los Angeles after his acting career didn’t work out. He was approving of the sentiment of the presidential candidate, but like many Trump supporters, and the businessman himself, was vague on detail.
“Trump has a backbone, no political correctness or any of that shit. It’s real. You can’t have anyone come into the country and kill everyone, and all that crap. Build a fucking wall and keep them out and put more money in America,” he said.
Watch video of Trump's remarks posted online by MSNBC: