Donald Trump said at a rally Thursday that he will "totally accept" the results of the presidential election "if I win."
"I will accept a clear election result, but will also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result," Trump declared at a campaign stop now in Delaware, Ohio.
The latest comments came after Republicans slammed Trump for his refusal at the final presidential debate Wednesday night to say he will honor the results of the November election should he lose and braced for a fresh political headache with less than three weeks left until Election Day.
Trump's alarming rejoinder about accepting the results — "I will tell you at the time" — sent shockwaves through the presidential campaign, with Trump's supporters struggling to explain his remarks and fellow Republicans seeking even more distance from their own nominee. The distraction deprived Trump of the comeback moment he sorely needed, despite an otherwise mostly measured and poised performance in Wednesday's third and final debate.
"I will keep you in suspense," Trump said ominously when asked whether he was committed to upholding America's centuries-old tradition of the election's loser conceding. He repeated unfounded allegations of impending, widespread voter fraud.
Trump "saying that he might not accept election results is beyond the pale," Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted Wednesday.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement that "Mr. Trump is doing the party and the country a great disservice" by suggesting the election is rigged, while Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake called the New York billionaire's statements "beyond the pale."
Without mentioning Trump, Sen. John McCain of Arizona issued a statement about the U.S. elections system on Thursday, saying: "There have been irregularities in our elections, sometimes even fraud, but never to an extent that it affected the outcome. We should all be proud of that, and respect the decision of the majority even when we disagree with it. Especially when we disagree with it."
Even Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a staunch Trump supporter said, "Not accepting the results I think is just - it's a stupid comment. I mean, come on, get over yourself."
The Republican National Committee, whose chief mission is to get the GOP nominee elected, was put in the remarkable position of disputing its own candidate, with a spokesman saying the party would "respect the will of the people." Even some of Trump's most ardent supporters felt it was a step over the line. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said it was "imperative that Donald Trump clearly state" he'll accept the results.
Clinton, for her part, called Trump's comments "horrifying."
Her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, said Thursday on NBC's "Today" show that Trump's comments were "shocking."
Kaine told host Matt Lauer that a peaceful transfer of powers is a "pillar" in American democracy.
"We should not have somebody running for president who is gonna try to pull the pillar down, which Donald Trump was basically trying to do last night," Kaine said.
Trump's remarkable comments came just hours after his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, said on CNN "that we'll certainly accept the outcome of this election." And Trump's daughter Ivanka, arguably his most influential adviser, said earlier Wednesday that her father would "do the right thing" when she was asked if he would concede after a defeat in November.
The debate answer left his own team scrambling in the aftermath of the debate. Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager, at first responded to questions about the comment by saying he "would accept the results, because he'll win the election."
"So, you know, absent widespread fraud and irregularities, then, we'll see," Conway said. "What he's saying is we have to see what happens."
She later rejected the outcry over Trump's comment, saying it's "not fair" to suggest Trump is undermining the prospects of a peaceful transfer of power.
"You've got to listen to everything he said," she argued. "Al Gore did not accept the results of the elections and he said he would. He actually conceded to George W. Bush on election night in 2000 and then called and retracted his concession."
Conway reiterated her comments Thursday morning on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"It's just that he can't say what's going to happen if the election is very tight," she said.
Gore pulled back his concession only after updated vote count results in Florida showed the state too close to call, throwing the outcome of the election into doubt. When the U.S. Supreme Court later halted a recount, leaving Bush ahead in Florida and giving him the election, Gore conceded and asked the country to accept Bush as the nation's next leader.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, another of Trump's top allies, said the Republican nominee had good reason to be suspicious about potential fraud. "There are indications of a lot of fraud around by the Clintons," Giuliani said.
In fact, there is no proof that voter fraud is a widespread problem in the United States. A study by a Loyola Law School professor found that out of 1 billion votes cast in all American elections between 2000 and 2014, there were only 31 known cases of impersonation fraud.
Meanwhile, President Obama hailed Clinton's debate performance: "Outstanding 3 for 3 debate sweep for @HillaryClinton! Nobody has ever been more prepared to be @POTUS."
Nancy Pelosi also tweeted: "From one #NastyWoman to another, you were an inspiration last night, @HillaryClinton."
The White House also contrasted Donald Trump's refusal to commit to accepting the election results with Obama's promise to follow tradition and escort the winner to the Capitol for the inauguration, regardless of who wins.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said aboard Air Force One "that will be some car ride" if Trump wins. But he said it is in the best interest of the nation.
He was speaking as Obama flies to Miami to encourage enrollment in health insurance coverage and to campaign at a separate event for Clinton.