Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Wednesday accused Republican opponent Donald Trump of inciting violence with his call for gun rights activists to stop her from nominating liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices.
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Clinton's comments added to a growing outcry over Trump's remarks on Tuesday at a North Carolina rally, which some interpreted as a call for violence against his White House rival. His remarks also fueled widespread concerns about his ability to stay on track.
"Words matter, my friends," the former U.S. secretary of state said a rally in Des Moines, Iowa. "And if you are running to be president or you are president of the United States, words can have tremendous consequences.
"Yesterday, we witnessed the latest in a long line of casual comments from Donald Trump that crossed the line," she said, citing "his casual inciting of violence. Every single one of these incidences shows us that Donald Trump simply does not have the temperament to be president and commander in chief of the United States."
Trump insisted in an interview with Fox News that his remarks were a call for political, not physical, action.
"There is tremendous political power to save the Second Amendment, tremendous," the New York businessman said. "And you look at the power they have in terms of votes and that's what I was referring to, obviously that's what I was referring to, and everybody knows it."
The U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees a right to keep and bear arms.
But high-profile Republicans and rank-and-file voters appeared shaken on Wednesday after a string of Trump missteps, struggling with how to best reject Trump's divisive candidacy. Some pledged to withhold their endorsement and others backed Clinton. Some sought for an unprecedented way to oust Trump from the Republican ticket.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, said the party was in "uncharted waters" and called for leaders to start looking for ways replace him.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll taken Aug. 5-8, showed that nearly one-fifth of 396 registered Republicans said they want Trump to drop out of the race for the White House and another 10 percent said they "don't know" whether the Republican nominee should or not.
Clinton's campaign, seeing an opening, moved to bring disenchanted Republicans into the fold by announcing an official intraparty outreach effort on behalf of the Democratic nominee.
James Rohrscheib, 74, a registered Republican and retired U.S. Navy officer from Washington state, told Reuters the reality is the Nov. 8 election will be a "tough one."
"I'm in a quandary as to who I am going to vote for," Rohrscheib said.
Clinton's campaign now has a website for Republicans and political independents to sign up to pledge their support, listing 50 prominent Republicans and independents who have endorsed her so far, including Meg Whitman, a high-profile Republican fundraiser and chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
John Negroponte, former director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, and former U.S. Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut, also a Republican, were among those who announced their support on Wednesday.
On Monday, 50 Republican national security officials signed an open letter questioning Trump's temperament, calling him reckless and unqualified to be president.
Other top Republicans, including Senator Susan Collins of Maine this week, have disavowed Trump but said they cannot back Clinton.
Strategists and Trump detractors agreed that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to remove Trump from the Republican ticket.
"It's wishful thinking to believe the Republicans are going to replace its nominee after the convention. People are grasping at straws," Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist unaffiliated with Trump, told Reuters.
Trump has dismissed the defections and criticism as an unsurprising reaction of the so-called Washington elite to his drive to change the status quo.
"The support he has from Republicans almost seems obligatory rather than voluntary," Mike Smith, a Republican voter and Reuters/Ipsos poll respondent, said of Trump's remaining defenders.
"I'm almost at the point where I think I'm going to vote for Hillary. I don't like her," said Smith, a 74-year-old retiree who lives in Clearwater, Florida. "But Mr. Trump is making me very nervous."
Republican strategist and Trump supporter Ford O'Connell said Trump has "dug himself a deep hole" and that to win the election he will need to "make it a referendum on Hillary Clinton and the 'rigged system.'"
Trump sought to do just that by using an economic policy speech in Detroit on Monday after a series of missteps that included a prolonged clash with the parents of a fallen Muslim American soldier. But his remarks Tuesday undermined that effort.
"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks," Trump said at the rally at the University of North Carolina. "Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know," he continued.
The U.S. Secret Service, which investigates threats against sitting presidents and party nominees, has had "more than one conversation" with the Trump campaign about his remark, CNN reported on Wednesday.
Trump's comment and the resulting backlash occurred as Reuters/Ipsos polling showed some 44 percent of 1,162 registered voters believe Trump should exit the race, and that as of Tuesday, Clinton led Trump by more than 7 percentage points, up from a 3-point lead late last week.
Republican Party rules and state laws would make it difficult at this juncture to replace Trump on ballots ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
A more likely scenario would be a replay of the 1996 presidential race, when Republican nominee Bob Dole was badly trailing President Bill Clinton. The party essentially deserted Dole by urging its congressional candidates to cut ties and concentrate on maintaining a Republican majority in the U.S. Congress.
(By Amanda Becker and James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Alana Wise, Emily Flitter, Ginger Gibson, Susan Heavy, Doina Chiacu, Grant Smith and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)