By Megan Cassella
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and his two rivals, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, backed away from their pledges to support the eventual nominee, potentially setting the stage for a deeply divided party and a chaotic convention in July.
Trump on Wednesday stuck by his decision to abandon the pledge, saying the Republican Party had not treated him fairly.
The billionaire businessman also said that if he becomes the party's nominee for the Nov. 8 general election, he did not care if Cruz supported him.
"I don't really care whether or not Cruz endorses me," Trump said in an interview on Fox News. "The only ones supporting me that I care about are the people."
Candidates had agreed to support the party's nominee earlier in the campaign, but Trump and Ohio Governor Kasich both abandoned the pledge on Tuesday night during town halls televised by CNN.
"If the nominee is somebody that I think is really hurting the country ... I can't stand behind them," Kasich said.
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, did not explicitly abandon the pledge but said Trump wasn't going to be the nominee. "We're going to beat him," he said.
The crumbling of the pledge prompted questions about whether the party can unite behind a general election candidate and speculation the Republican convention in Cleveland could erupt in chaos.
The Republican National Committee on Wednesday did not comment on the candidates' new stances.
"The pledge is simple, each candidate agreed to run as a Republican and support the nominee. We are confident that Republicans will unite to defeat (Democratic front-runner) Hillary Clinton," committee spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said in an email.
Trump is running an insurgent campaign that has alarmed many in the party establishment. Opponents have criticized not just his proposals on issues such as trade and immigration but his stream of insults toward rivals and the aggressive tone of his rallies.
On Tuesday, rivals criticized his reaction after Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery over an incident with a reporter earlier in the month.
Police in Jupiter, Florida, charged Lewandowski with intentionally grabbing and bruising the arm of Michelle Fields, then a reporter for the conservative news outlet Breitbart, when she tried to question Trump at a campaign event on March 8.
On Wednesday, the candidate defended Lewandowski and said the reporter had grabbed Trump. He said he was considering legal action.
Trump said he would have fired Lewandowski if he had hurt Fields. "If she really did go down, he would have been fired before she even got up, that I can tell you," he said.
Cruz said on Tuesday that if he were in Trump's place, he would have fired Lewandowski.
Trump leads his opponents but faces a tough path to win the 1,237 convention delegates needed to secure the nomination outright. On Wednesday, he said the Republican Party treated him unfairly, criticizing Louisiana, where some delegates were not bound to a particular candidate.
"I got the most votes, and I didn't get the most delegates," Trump said. "The Republican Party hasn't treated me properly in my opinion."
Boosting the likelihood of a convention fight, former candidate Marco Rubio of Florida has asked party leaders in 21 states and territories not to release the 172 delegates that the U.S. senator won before he quit, media outlets reported.
(Writing by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Susan Heavey, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)