By Steve Holland and Emily Stephenson
OCALA, Fla./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump escalated his attacks on U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday, deepening a fracture in the party with only four weeks to go until the Nov. 8 election.
Trump, at a rally before thousands of supporters jammed into a livestock arena in Ocala, Florida, also attempted to drive voters away from Democratic rival Hillary Clinton with an overwhelmingly negative speech in which he described her as corrupt and unqualified for the presidency.
Ryan said on Monday he was no longer going to campaign for or defend Trump and advised House Republicans not to support the White House candidate if they did not want to. His move followed outcry over a video that surfaced last Friday showing Trump bragging in 2005 about groping women and making unwanted sexual advances.
Trump's response to being abandoned by Ryan, the country's most senior elected Republican, has veered between saying he feels free now to campaign on his own terms and assailing Ryan and other "disloyal" Republicans.
"Already the Republican nominee has a massive disadvantage and especially when you have the leaders not putting their weight behind the people," the New York businessman said on Wednesday, complaining that Ryan and others had not called to congratulate him on what he felt was a strong performance at a debate against Clinton on Sunday.
"You'd think they'd say great going Don, let's go. Let's beat this crook," Trump said.
“No, he doesn't do that,” he added of Ryan, as the crowd booed in sympathy. “There is a whole deal going on there. There is a whole deal going on and we’re going to figure it out. I always figure things out. But there’s a whole sinister deal going on.”
The release of the video has plunged Trump and the Republican Party into a deep crisis that has jeopardized his chances of winning the White House, when he was already lagging Clinton in national opinion polls, and possibly put Republican control of the U.S. Congress in danger.
WRONG FOCUS, LAWMAKERS COMPLAIN
Trump's fresh round of attacks came even as his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, heard concerns from some House Republicans that Trump's criticism of Ryan was distracting from his message on how to defeat Clinton and win the White House.
Conway convened a conference call with House Republicans who support Trump that lasted about an hour.
A congressional aide said Conway went through a list of differences between Trump and Clinton and talked about how to make the case for Trump and against Clinton.
The general theme of comments from lawmakers on the call was that Trump needed to focus on his message to the United States and distinguish it from Clinton’s, the aide said.
The aide said members specifically brought up Trump’s attacks on Ryan as a distraction from that message. The tone from House Republican was one of frustration at Trump's attacks on a fellow Republican, the aide said.
The campaign and Conway did not respond to requests for their comments about the call.
Nonetheless, Ryan has been facing considerable blowback from a number of his fellow House Republicans since announcing his decision to focus on electing Republicans in Congress.
Oklahoma Republican Jim Bridenstine, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, tweeted on Wednesday that he will not support Ryan – presumably, for speaker in the next Congress -- because of Ryan’s failure to defend Trump.
“Given the stakes of this election, If Paul Ryan isn’t for Trump, then I’m not for Paul Ryan,” Bridenstine tweeted.
Republican Senator John Thune, who called for Trump to withdraw from the race in a Saturday tweet, says his position has not changed but that he will vote for all Republican candidates on the ticket including Trump.
“I intend to support the nominee of our party. But he’s got a lot of work to do, I think, if he’s going to have any hope of winning this election," Thune told KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in an interview that aired late on Tuesday.
Thune was among a string of Republican officials and former officials who called on Trump to withdraw from the race over the weekend.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Caren Bohan and Frances Kerry)