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Cruz gains steam against Trump, as Rubio fades in ‘Super Saturday’ voting

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Republicans in Maine and Kansas breathed new life into Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign Saturday, handing him significant victories in GOP caucuses as he seeks to position himself as the chief alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump.

But Trump didn’t come up completely empty in the four states that made up the so-called “Super Saturday” voting. The real estate mogul claimed narrow victories over Cruz in Louisiana and Kentucky — suggesting that his race to lock up the delegates that are needed to secure the nomination had been slowed, but not derailed, by party figures determined to block his campaign.

In a press conference here Saturday night, Trump called on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished well behind Trump and Cruz in Saturday’s contests, to leave the race. “It’s probably time,” he said, adding that he wanted to face Cruz “one-on-one.”

Trump aides were quick to play down Cruz’s victories, pointing out that he had poured more energy and resources into winning the caucus states than their boss. (Speaking to supporters, Trump fancifully suggested another reason for Cruz’s win in Maine: its proximity to Canada, where the Texas senator was born.)

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Sen. Ted Cruz greets supporters at a rally on the campus of Boise State University in Idaho on Saturday. (Photo: Joe Jaszewski/Idaho Statesman/TNS via Getty Images)

But Cruz’s strong showing on Saturday was a significant blow to Trump, who had been riding a wave of what seemed to be unstoppable momentum after Super Tuesday, when he won seven states and expanded his delegate lead over Cruz, Rubio and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. Speaking to supporters, Trump appeared tired but undeterred as he talked up his “amazing” night and predicted he will become the GOP nominee.

In recent days, Trump has come under increased scrutiny from his rivals, who have raised questions about his business record and temperament, and from party elders like Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who have called Trump unfit for the presidency and launched efforts to derail his insurgent campaign.

Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, delivered a blistering speech on Thursday trashing Trump as a “phony” and calling on GOP voters to deny him the nomination. Romney, who sought and received Trump’s endorsement four years ago, has also suggested he might spend part of his personal fortune to further the so-called “Never Trump” cause, pushed by the party’s establishment and super-PACs aiming to bolster his rivals, who are looking to set up a convention fight over the nomination.

While his campaign downplayed Saturday’s results, Trump had added last-minute stops in Maine and Kansas. On Saturday, he canceled a scheduled speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C., to stump in Wichita, Kan., where he and Cruz nearly crossed paths at a caucus site. But Trump still came up short, raising questions as to whether the attacks on his campaign are working.

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Donald Trump addresses a press event at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Saturday. (Photo: Joe Skipper/Reuters)

After Saturday’s results came in, Trump called on the party to unite behind him, citing what he described as “millions” of new supporters he had brought into the party. He called on members of the establishment trying to block his path to the nomination to unite behind him.

“As a party, we should come together and stop this foolishness,” Trump said.

Saturday’s results also dealt another serious setback to Rubio, who faces the increasingly steep challenge of selling GOP voters on the idea that he, not Cruz, should be the alternative to Trump. In Kansas, he won the endorsements of several key Republican figures, including Gov. Sam Brownback and former Sen. Bob Dole. The Florida senator had canceled trips to Louisiana and Kentucky to make a last-minute play for the state — only to finish third in all three states, receiving only minimal numbers of delegates. In Maine, he finished fourth, narrowly missing the threshold for delegates.

So far, Rubio has won just one state — Minnesota — and trails significantly behind Trump and Cruz in the delegate race. Still, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant, in an interview with Fox News that his campaign sent to reporters, refused to cede ground to Cruz, arguing somewhat implausibly that “the map moving forward” favors his boss.

“Ted Cruz has shown that he can win his home state and neighboring state, Oklahoma and small rural caucuses, like Iowa and Alaska, and now Kansas,” Conant said. “Unfortunately, there are only two states left that have caucuses, Utah and Hawaii. After that, it is all primaries. Marco has done well in primaries so far.”

On Saturday, Rubio traveled to Puerto Rico, which holds its GOP primary on Sunday. Aides believe a win there could help bolster his bid to win Florida’s March 15 primary, where the senator is counting on turnout from Hispanics to help put him over the top.

But Florida, a winner-take-all delegate state, increasingly looks like a do-or-die contest for Rubio’s struggling campaign. Early polls suggest that Trump leads Rubio there, and the businessman’s campaign has signaled that he will campaign heavily there in the next week and a half. At the same time, Cruz announced this week that he’s opening 10 new campaign offices across the state and will also spend significant time in Florida, in what appears to be an attempt not necessarily to win but to deal a deathblow to Rubio’s campaign.

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Sen. Marco Rubio addresses the 43rd annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., on Saturday. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalso/EPA)

But before the race turns to Florida, the GOP hopefuls face four other voting states this Tuesday, including Mississippi and Michigan, where an ARG poll of likely GOP voters released Saturday found Kasich surging into a statistical tie with Trump. Other polls, however, show Trump substantially ahead. A win there could potentially give Kasich a boost heading into his home state primary, also scheduled for March 15, where a Quinnipiac poll conducted in mid-February found him narrowly trailing Trump.

Perhaps most significant on Saturday was Cruz’s win in Maine, a state where Republicans tend to be more moderate than other states he has won, like Kansas and Oklahoma. While there was no exit polling, the results suggest that the Texas senator, who has relied largely on backing from evangelicals and ultraconservative members of the party, might be expanding his coalition of support.

“What we’re seeing is the public coming together, libertarians coming together, men and women who love the Constitution coming together and uniting and standing as one behind this campaign,” Cruz told supporters at a rally in Idaho, where he was campaigning Saturday ahead of the state’s primary on Tuesday.

Like Trump, Cruz, citing his “breadth of support,” also pushed for Rubio to quit the race — and Kasich too.

“We’ll continue to amass delegates, but what needs to happen is the field needs to continue to narrow,” Cruz said, according to the New York Times. “As long as the field remains divided, it gives Donald an advantage.”

Thousands of miles away, standing before rows of friends at an election night gathering inside his golf club, Trump again and again said he was ready to take on Cruz head-to-head, describing him as someone who can be easily defeated.

“That would be so much fun,” Trump said of facing Cruz. “Oh, do I just want to run against Ted! That would be so easy.”

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