Billionaire Donald Trump assumed the mantle of presumptive Republican presidential nominee on Wednesday with a mixed message on party unity and a clearer one for his next likely target, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The former reality television star, who has never held public office, won a commanding victory in Indiana’s primary on Tuesday, forcing his main rival, Ted Cruz, to drop out of the race.
The one-time long-shot candidate repeatedly defied pundits’ predictions that his campaign would implode. He prevailed despite making outrageous statements along the way that drew biting criticism but fed his anti-establishment appeal.
Trump can now prepare for a match-up in the Nov. 8 general election. Clinton is expected to be his Democratic opponent, though her march to the nomination was slowed by rival Bernie Sanders’ victory in Indiana.
Trump’s immediate challenge is to unite deep fissures within the Republican Party, easing tensions with party loyalists who are appalled at his bullying style, his treatment of women and his proposals to build a wall on the border with Mexico and deport 11 million illegal immigrants.
“I am confident that I can unite much of it, some of it I don’t want,” Trump said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show. “Honestly, there are some people I really don’t want. People will be voting for me. They’re not voting for the party.”
On Tuesday night Trump called for unity in his victory speech that was free of his usual bombast. He also directed fire at Clinton.
“We’re going after Hillary Clinton,” he said. “She will not be a great president, she will not be a good president, she will be a poor president. She doesn’t understand trade.”
“I’m considering a lot of people,” Trump said on Fox News.
Support for Trump among national Republicans soared in recent weeks to the highest level of the primary campaign, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. A recent poll found Trump with the support of 53 percent of Republican participants, well above Cruz at 25 percent. Ohio Governor John Kasich, the third Republican in the race, had the support of 16 percent.
In a potential general election match-up, however, Clinton led Trump by about 10 percentage points among likely voters. The poll included 623 Democrats and 556 Republicans and had a credibility interval of 5 percentage points.
Trump’s victory put to rest a belief that Republicans would choose their nominee at a contested convention in July. Nonetheless, Kasich vowed to stay in the race until California holds its primary on June 7.
CRUZ: “VOTERS CHOSE ANOTHER PATH”
As the primary returns flowed, Cruz announced he had ended his campaign in Indianapolis, with his wife, Heidi, at his side. Cruz, 45, sounding beaten but defiant, said he no longer saw a viable path to the nomination.
“We gave it everything we got. But the voters chose another path, and so with a heavy heart, but with boundless optimism for the long-term future of our nation, we are suspending our campaign,” said Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas.
Cruz’s exit came as a surprise, and many Republicans who had denounced Trump were grappling with what to do next.
Reuters/Ipsos polling in April found Cruz supporters split on whom to support if their candidate quit.
Lanhee Chen, who had advised former Republican candidate Marco Rubio, on Tuesday night floated the possibility of a third-party candidate.
“Tonight’s outcome raises seriousness & urgency of discussions about third-party alternative; how real it is depends on who steps up to run,” he tweeted.
Other prominent Republicans said they would support Trump. “It’s binary now. It’s Trump or Clinton, my vote’s for Trump,” former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who dropped his own White House bid in November, said on Fox News.