The two top Republican leaders in Congress denounced Donald Trump on Tuesday for his slow-moving disavowal of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Trump's "seeming ambivalence about David Duke and the KKK" as Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., warned that anyone who wants the Republican presidential nomination must reject racism.
The rebuke of Trump came as GOP voters went to the polls in 11 states in a "Super Tuesday" of balloting that many Republicans fear could give the combative and controversial New Yorker unstoppable momentum toward claiming the GOP presidential nod.
"This party does not prey on people's prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the Party of Lincoln," Ryan told reporters as voters in 11 states holding GOP contests headed to the polls on Super Tuesday.
At the same time, Ryan reiterated that he will support the eventual GOP presidential nominee.
Never mentioning Trump's name, Ryan and McConnell were clearly referring to the billionaire businessman's appearance Sunday on CNN when he declined to disavow the support of Duke and other white supremacists.
"Let me make it perfectly clear: Senate Republicans condemn David Duke, the KKK, and his racism," McConnell said.
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Duke served as a Republican in the Louisiana state legislature in the early 1990s.
"When I see something that runs counter to who we are as a party and a country I will speak up. So today I want to be very clear about something: If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry," Ryan said.
Last year, Ryan and McConnell disavowed Trump's plan to block Muslims from entering the U.S. Otherwise, they've tried to stay clear of commenting on the race.
Trump subsequently disavowed Duke, blaming his interview performance Sunday on a bad earpiece.
His two top rivals — Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — criticized Trump and said the GOP must condemn white supremacists.
But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi argued that "Trump's radical agenda" reflects the House Republican conference. Pelosi said that while some in the GOP are distancing themselves from Trump, Republicans refused to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds and have blocked renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
"The reality is, Donald Trump is just being more candid about the agenda of discrimination House Republicans have been advancing for years," Pelosi said in a statement.
Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada noted that both GOP leaders say they expect to support the eventual nominee.
"Republicans say they they'll support a man who refuses to denounce the KKK so until they withdraw their support, talk is really cheap," Reid said.
On Tuesday, USA Today reported that a group of about 30 African-American students from Valdosta State University were kicked out of a Trump rally by law enforcement officials.
"The only reason we were given was that Mr. Trump did not want us there," 22-year-old senior Brooke Gladney told the newspaper. The campaign denied any role in their ouster from the event.
Ryan, the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee, bemoaned the current discourse in the GOP and said it was time to get back to focusing on how Republicans would solve the nation's problems.
"We believe all people are created in the eyes of God and our government. This is fundamental. And if someone wants to be our nominee they must understand this," said the Wisconsin congressman.
He said he has tried to avoid commenting on the presidential race but felt a need to speak up.
"I try to stay out of the day-to-day ups and downs of the primary," Ryan said. "But I've said when I see something that runs counter to who we are as a party and a country I will speak up."
Many Washington Republicans are increasingly open about their dismay at the prospect of Trump winning the GOP nomination. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., an advocate of updating U.S. immigration law, said the prospect of voting for Trump is "not a pleasant thought at all .... I'm still holding out hope we don't have that choice."
Last month, Trump took a swipe at Ryan, saying the GOP lost the White House in 2012 because the vice presidential candidate was synonymous with a budget that targeted Social Security. That, according to Trump, cost Republicans with seniors.
Ryan rejected that argument on Tuesday, saying he and Mitt Romney won the senior vote by 12 percentage points, "the best performance a Republican ticket has had since 1984 when Ronald Reagan had a landslide election."