HOLLYWOOD, FLA. >> Donald Trump's chief lieutenants pushed skeptical Republican leaders Thursday to embrace him as their likely presidential nominee, declaring he can deliver big electoral gains this fall despite his contentious ways.
Even as his team pressed Trump's case, the billionaire raised fresh concern among some conservatives by speaking against North Carolina's "bathroom law," which directs transgender people to use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates. Trump also came out against the government's plan to replace President Andrew Jackson with the civil-rights figure Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.
The developments came as the GOP's messy fight for the White House spilled into a seaside resort in south Florida. While candidates in both parties fanned out across the country before important primary contests in the Northeast, Hollywood's Diplomat Resort & Spa was transformed into a palm-treed political battleground.
There were new signs of frustration among members of the Republican National Committee, who are eager for the divisive primary season to end.
"I want to see Mr. Trump begin to bring us together," said Henry Barbour, a committeeman from Mississippi. "And I haven't seen it. It's not good enough to do it for 30 minutes one day and then the other hours of the day try to divide."
On one side in the long-running battle, Ted Cruz's team warned party elders in private briefings that only the Texas senator could expand the GOP and heal deepening intraparty divisions. On the other, Trump's revamped inner circle quietly courted RNC members who openly questioned the front-runner's tone and party loyalty.
"People have expressed concerns about that," said Paul Manafort, tapped by Trump earlier in the month to lead the remainder of his primary election strategy. "We hear them."
"We're here letting people know that know we're starting to pivot toward the inevitability of the nomination," Manafort told The Associated Press. "We want to start opening doors and building relationships because we are committed to running a traditional united party."
There was evidence of a rift on the Democratic side as well.
Prominent Southern Democrats urged Bernie Sanders to stop dismissing Hillary Clinton's landslide primary wins across the South, where the front-runner's popularity among non-whites has helped fuel her success.
Sanders said the results in the South "distort reality" because they came from the country's "most conservative region."
Don Fowler of South Carolina, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and other Clinton supporters told Sanders in a letter that "our national Democratic leaders" should "invest in our races and causes — to amplify our voices, not diminish them."
Yet as Clinton's grasp on the Democratic nomination tightens, Trump's overwhelming Republican delegate lead has done little to calm concerns from GOP leaders, gathered at the resort for the party's meeting.
As Trump continues to rail against "a rigged" nomination process, he sent Manafort and his newly hired political director, Rick Wiley, to help improve relationships with party officials at the meeting.
The aides were to deliver a private briefing to RNC members Thursday evening aimed at "dispelling the notion out there right now" that Trump's current unpopularity among key general election constituencies — women and minorities, for example — would trigger a general election disaster, Wiley said.
Trump's team planned to draw on political history to make the case.
Wiley cited polls that found Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush struggling in presidential campaigns before they won. Wiley also said Trump could compete and even win in Democratic strongholds such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin — and even deeper-blue states such as New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.
"He might not win some of these blue states, but you can make the Democrats spend money and time," Wiley said.
Trump is increasingly optimistic about his chances in five states holding primary contests Tuesday: Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. He is now the only Republican candidate who can possibly collect the 1,237 delegate majority needed to claim the nomination before the party's July convention.
But Cruz hopes Trump will fall short of a nomination-clinching delegate majority so that he can turn enough delegates to his side at the convention to give him the prize.
The political posturing came as Trump sparked new criticism by addressing the debate over which bathrooms transgender people should use.
Speaking at a town-hall event on NBC's "Today" show Thursday, Trump said North Carolina's bathroom law has caused unnecessary strife and transgender people should be able to choose which bathroom to use.
"There have been very few complaints the way it is," Trump said. "People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate."
Cruz lashed out at Trump's "support of grown men using women's restrooms." The Texas senator called Trump's position "a reckless policy that will endanger our loved ones."
Trump also said the plan to swap Jackson for Tubman on the $20 bill is an act of "pure political correctness."
Trump called Tubman "fantastic" but said he'd prefer to leave Jackson on the bill and place Tubman's image on another denomination: "Maybe we do the $2 bill," he said.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram in Hollywood, Jill Colvin in New York and Errin Haines Whack in Philadelphia contributed to this report.