NEW YORK — As Democrats readied for their first debate-stage clash in a month, Florida officials declared Thursday they would not prosecute Donald Trump's campaign manager for misdemeanor battery, the latest extraordinary development in a turbulent presidential primary season now focused on New York.
Trump joined other presidential contenders from both parties who hustled into New York City ahead of the state's Tuesday presidential primaries, a critical test as both parties' front-runners fight to beat back surging challengers. New conflicts flared between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders hours before the evening debate in Brooklyn as protesters clogged the Manhattan sidewalk outside a state GOP dinner where all three Republican White House hopefuls were scheduled to appear.
Trump was the target of rowdy protesters who hung an effigy of the billionaire businessman and chanted, "How do you spell racist? T-R-U-M-P."
The raucous scene came shortly after Florida prosecutors dismissed a criminal complaint against Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, two weeks after local police charged him with grabbing a reporter.
Florida state attorney Dave Aronberg declared police were right to charge Lewandowski, yet the burden on prosecutors to prove the case was higher.
"Although there was probable cause to make an arrest, the evidence cannot prove all legally required elements of the crime alleged and is insufficient to support a criminal prosecution," Aronberg said during an afternoon news conference.
Lewandowski initially denied grabbing the reporter before video surveillance surfaced of the early March incident. Trump accused the reporter of exaggerating and changing her story.
Prosecutors said Thursday that a simple apology might have avoided the criminal complaint. Lewandowski was "gratified" by the prosecutor's decision, the campaign said in a brief statement declaring, "The matter is now concluded."
On the Democratic side, Sanders jabbed Clinton while courting black leaders before the debate as he outlined policy prescriptions for jobs, education and criminal justice.
"If you believe that those issues can be addressed by establishment politics and establishment economics, you've got a very good candidate to vote for but it's not Bernie Sanders," the Vermont senator declared.
The Democratic race has become increasingly heated in New York — including Sanders first questioning Clinton's qualifications to be president and then reversing himself — and the tensions were likely to spill onto the debate stage.
Early Thursday, Sanders distanced himself from comments made by a surrogate the day before that voters shouldn't "continue to elect corporate Democratic whores." Sanders said on Twitter that the comment "was inappropriate and insensitive." ''There's no room for language like that in our political discourse," he wrote.
Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign's communications director, responded on Twitter that it was "very distressing language to say the least."
Front-runners Clinton and Trump hope New York's April 19 primaries can propel them past stubborn challengers and into the general election. Preference polls show Clinton and Trump leading their respective contests.
Sanders, a Vermont senator who was born in Brooklyn, has been touting his local roots as he seeks to upset Clinton in New York. While he is on a winning streak in primaries and caucuses, he needs a big victory in the state to cut into Clinton's delegate lead and slow her march to the nomination.
Sanders broadened his attack on his party's front-runner in a new ad unveiled Thursday.
"Nothing will change until we elect candidates who reject Wall Street money," the narrator says.
Trump, meanwhile, hopes New York marks an end to the worst period of his candidacy, a stretch that raised new questions about his policy abilities and revealed his campaign's lack of preparedness for a delegate fight if the GOP race heads to a contested convention. A big victory in New York could increase his chances of clinching the nomination before the convention.
He dispatched aides to Capitol Hill Thursday in the first of what the campaign says will be a series of regular gatherings with lawmakers.
Trump adviser Ed Brookover said after the meeting that the billionaire businessman was on a "glide path" to reaching the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination.
At the same time, Cruz appeared to be courting the GOP's conservative base, a group that could hold great sway at the party's July national convention.
The Texas senator said he supports the ability of North Carolina lawmakers to pass a law restricting bathroom access for gay and transgender people. The state has faced a national backlash from critics who say the law unfairly targets gay and lesbian people.
Cruz said during taping of a MSNBC town hall in Buffalo that states can pass such laws because "men should not be going to the bathroom with little girls."
"That is a perfectly reasonable determination for the people to make," he said.
Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington and Rachelle Blidner and Scott Bauer in New York contributed to this report.