CLEVELAND — The vulnerabilities of the leading presidential candidates were laid bare on Monday, as rivals sought to portray Hillary Clinton as being at odds with the white working class and Donald J. Trump as a misogynist who did not deserve the support of women in the five states that vote on Tuesday.
The chorus of anyone-but-Trump from Republicans reached a roar as voters prepared to go to the polls in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Florida. Our Principles PAC, a group created to try to stop Trump's bid, released a scathing one-minute ad that shows women repeating some of his descriptions of women, including "bimbo," "dog" and "fat pig."
"This is how Donald Trump talks about our mothers, our sisters, our daughters," they say.
Clinton, who has struggled to connect to white working-class voters in the pivotal Midwestern states, faced intense criticism over comments she made in Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday. "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," she said, in explaining her plan to create clean energy jobs.
America Rising, an anti-Clinton super PAC, said the comment showed a "brazen disregard for the men and women who help power America." A spokesman for Clinton said the comments, which she made while discussing her plan to bring jobs back to coal country, were misconstrued.
The five contests on Tuesday present opportunities and pitfalls. For the Republicans, the primaries could represent the last chance to halt Trump's march to the nomination.
Gov. John Kasich and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz all hunkered down in their strongest states — Ohio, Florida and Illinois, respectively — while Trump flew to North Carolina, Florida and Ohio for rallies. Trump is seeking victories in these states to effectively lock down the nomination. Splintered results would probably spell a long slog toward a contested Republican convention in July.
Once optimistic about Clinton's chances in Ohio and the other Midwestern states, her aides, shaken by the unexpected loss in the Michigan primary last week, now say the demographics in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois favor Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose economic populism and anti-trade message have resonated with young voters and white working-class men.
Instead, her campaign is looking to Florida and North Carolina, where polls show Clinton leading by more than 20 points. Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, has assured supporters that she could lose the Midwestern contests and still come out on Tuesday with a nearly insurmountable delegate lead. Clinton plans to hold a victory rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Tuesday.
But a victory for Sanders in Ohio, in particular, would be a boon for his candidacy.
After all, it was Clinton who used her unexpected victory in Ohio's 2008 primary to argue that she should stay in the race and to raise questions about Barack Obama's electability. (Obama won Ohio in the general election in 2008 and 2012).
Sanders' campaign has argued that Clinton has not proved she can win widely beyond Southern states with large numbers of African-Americans.
In Ohio, which is about 14 percent black, Clinton has focused her campaigning on places like Cleveland, where the majority black and Democratic population holds particular sway in how delegates are awarded.
Sanders, meanwhile, has visited cities like Akron and Toledo, which are each well more than 60 percent white.
"We've really been focusing on blue-collar, older male voters, the 50 and 55-plus crowd that has been impacted by NAFTA and other trade deals," said Jeff Rusnak, the state director in Ohio for the Sanders campaign, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Significant losses to Sanders in the Midwest, and in Ohio in particular, would send a shudder through a Democratic Party grappling with the rise of Trump — who himself appeals to working-class whites — leaving questions of whether Clinton can connect to such voters in a general election.
"There's a psychological piece of this," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Obama. "Delegate acquisition is how you win the nomination," she added. "But you'd rather win it with some momentum."
And Kasich remains the wild card in both races.
Clinton's aides worry that some of her Democratic supporters, convinced she is in a solid position to capture the nomination, and independents will use Ohio's open primary to vote for the governor of the state in an effort to stop Trump.
"America is counting on you," Mitt Romney said as he introduced Kasich at a rally in Ohio on Monday.
An eternal optimist, Kasich has shrugged off the mathematical obstacles that he faces and is putting up a strong fight against Trump. He was tied with or leading Trump in two Ohio polls released on Monday.
More daunting odds face Rubio and his efforts to capture Florida, his home state. Despite vows to win there, he will need to defy polls that show him trailing Trump by more than 20 points. In his final push on Monday, Rubio lamented the unraveling of political discourse caused by Trump and called him the most "vulgar" candidate in the history of American politics. He urged voters to pick a more positive path.
"I hope Americans will choose optimism over fear, and hope over anger," Rubio said at an event in Melbourne, Florida. "We plan to win tomorrow."
If Rubio loses, the calls for him to quit will come fast, and few will be louder than that of Cruz, who has been craving a one-on-one matchup with Trump. "The way to beat Donald Trump is to beat him at the ballot box, which is what we have been doing," the senator from Texas told reporters in Illinois on Monday.
After a weekend of tumult that included violent scuffles at a canceled event in Chicago and a protester charging at him at a rally in Ohio, Trump sought a more calming atmosphere on Monday. He invited Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to join him for a fireside chat in North Carolina and fielded soft questions about his family, helping veterans and bringing the country together.
Christie, who skipped the funeral of a state trooper in his state to be there, fidgeted uncomfortably as protesters interrupted Trump's answers. Compared with the disruptions over the weekend, the event was tame, and Trump expressed confidence that he could bring people together. He called on Republicans to unite behind him.
"Instead of fighting it, get used to it," Trump said.
At least one group seems resigned to the idea that Trump will be the Republican nominee: Democrats supporting Clinton.
On Saturday night, the former secretary of state stopped at O'Donold's Irish Pub and Grill in downtown Youngstown, Ohio, where "Born in the USA" blared and bottles of Jameson and St. Patrick's Day shamrocks lined the wooden bar. "It's the best Guinness I've ever had! A Youngstown Guinness!" she said after taking a long sip of the frothy brown brew.
"Let's just say the Irish will put her over the top!" Rep. Tim Ryan, who accompanied Clinton, shouted.
As the two made their way outside the mobbed pub, Ryan, who has endorsed Clinton, acknowledged that she would face tough battles in the Midwest on Tuesday.
"Bernie Sanders is running a great campaign, and he's talking about issues that resonate," Ryan said. But, he added, "those Bernie Sanders voters will be a heck of a lot more comfortable coming home to Hillary Clinton than they are with Donald Trump."