Trump extends dominance as GOP starts to panic

MIAMI — Donald Trump claimed seven Republican victories on Super Tuesday as the New York businessman extended his dominance in the 2016 primary.

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At the same time, the GOP leaders’ search for any viable alternative to Trump suffered a fresh setback, with both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio vowing to fight on despite underwhelming performances on the biggest day of voting so far. Cruz avoided disaster by winning his home state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, while Rubio scored a lone victory in Minnesota.

Shrugging off a racially charged feud from earlier in the week, a confident Trump looked ahead to the general election in a victory speech at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida: “We’re going to be more inclusive,” he declared. “We’re going to be more unified.”

Voting continued in Alaska.

Trump scored victories in Georgia, Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Vermont, tightening his grasp on his party’s nomination on a Super Tuesday marked by panic from Republican leaders.

Fearing Trump may build an insurmountable delegate lead, top Republican officials lashed out at the billionaire businessman’s command of the issues and “seeming ambivalence” over white supremacists as voting began.

Trump’s aggressive plans for Muslims and immigrants have resonated with Tuesday’s Republican electorate, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks. Large majorities of Republican primary voters in six states, for example, said they support Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States.

READ MORE: Clinton solidifies lead with wins in 7 states

The results followed a wild prelude to Super Tuesday that featured extraordinary criticism from several Republican governors and senators who refused to say whether they would support their party’s front-runner should Trump win the nomination.

Trump’s strong performance across much of the South was a blow to Cruz, who had long expected the South to be his firewall.

Yet Cruz seized on Rubio’s struggles, calling on the GOP to unify behind his candidacy, “the only campaign that has beaten, that can beat and that will beat Donald Trump.”

With a win in Minnesota, Rubio hoped to stay competitive in the delegate count while eyeing a win in his home state of Florida on March 15.

A defiant Rubio told a hometown crowd in Miami that he had only begun to attack Trump: “You see, just five days ago we began to unmask the true nature of the front-runner so far in this race,” he said, calling the GOP front-runner “a con artist.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson remain in the race, but neither is expected to be a major factor on Super Tuesday.

Trump won at least 192 delegates in Tuesday’s contests. Cruz collected at least 132 and Rubio picked up at least 66. John Kasich has won at least 19 delegates and Ben Carson has won at least three.

Overall, Trump leads with 274 delegates. Cruz has 148, Rubio has 82, Kasich has 25 and Carson has eight.

It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination for president.

Envisioning a Trump White House, the front-runner said he would get along “great with Congress,” despite Tuesday criticism from House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who condemned his Sunday refusal to disavow the backing of a former Ku Klux Klan leader. Trump has since disavowed the nod.

“Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him,” Trump said. “And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price, OK?”

Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington, Jill Colvin in Palm Beach, Florida, and Bob Salsberg and Phillip Marcelo in Boston contributed to this report.