Can anyone bring down Donald Trump?
He scored another smashing victory in Nevada’s Tuesday caucuses, and heads into a Republican debate Thursday on a three-state winning streak now the undisputed front-runner for the GOP nomination.
In Nevada, he took 45.9 percent of the caucus vote, more than the next two candidates combined - Marco Rubio took 23.9 percent and Ted Cruz took 21.4 percent. His total was his biggest share of the vote yet, up sharply from his previous tallies and demonstrating that he can gain support as rivals drop out and the field narrows. That’s contrary to earlier analyses that he had a ceiling of about 33 percent of the GOP vote.
Now the real estate mogul will face a more desperate Rubio and Cruz in the debate, with each critically in need of a game-changing moment to stop the Trump bandwagon as it heads into Super Tuesday. Cruz has not won since Iowa; Rubio has not yet won a single state.
“It’s going to be an amazing two months,” Trump told supporters in Las Vegas. “We might not even need the two months to be honest, folks.”
The debate showdown at the University of Houston, which begins at 8:30 p.m. EST, promises to be a brawl over who’s most the electable, conservative and religious. Also debating will be Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Super Tuesday is coming, and the stakes are the biggest yet. Seven of the 11 states holding Republican primaries or caucuses Tuesday are in southern or border states, where Cruz and Rubio both need to start winning if they are to have any chance.
595 Republican delegates are at stake Tuesday. 1,237 are needed to nominate.
Rubio had hoped last-minute, establishment-fueled momentum would give him a big boost in Nevada, perhaps not a victory but bring him close enough that he could boast he was on the upswing. In the 72 hours before the caucus, he won key state endorsements as well as a host of others from leading party figures, including GOP 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole.
It didn’t work and he finished far behind Trump.
Setting the stage for the debate:
Who will be Trump’s foil?
Trump dominates most debates with insults and interruptions, usually aimed at Cruz and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. It works, as he’s also won New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Trump will probably persist in branding Cruz as a liar, but Bush is out. So how will he deal with Rubio? He could chide the first-term senator for his inexperience and his frequent absences from his Senate job. But Rubio has tackled those charges before. Even if Trump does try to belittle the newly minted establishment hope, can Rubio respond with that icy look and visionary gaze? And can he bury Trump, whose policies remain largely a mystery, with his command of issues?
Cruz leads Trump, 37 percent to 29 percent in Texas, in the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll
Can Rubio score?
He’s now armed with a growing list of congressional supporters, potential to raise a lot of money and a sense that he could give Democrats the roughest race in November.
Yet every time Rubio flirts with stardom, he stumbles. He was the up-and-coming GOP star three years ago, only to become a national punchline after reaching for water during his State of the Union response. Just a few weeks ago, he staggered through a debate in New Hampshire by repeating the same lines over and over.
Will Cruz rally his army?
The Texas senator wants to be the unquestioned champion of the religious right, an important, influential Republican constituency. He’s also on his home turf, speaking to an audience in a state where he won 56 percent of the vote in his 2012 Senate race and has the backing of former Gov. Rick Perry.
But his campaign has been in turmoil. It’s been rocked by accusations of dirty tricks. The most recent involved publicizing false quotes about Rubio and the Bible. Cruz fired spokesman Rick Tyler, who was involved the incident.
More worrisome for Cruz, the very voters he needs have so far been reluctant to support him. The first half of March features voting in 11 states where at least one-half of the GOP electorate said in 2012 they considered themselves evangelicals. It’s make or break time.
Can Kasich move into the top tier?
On paper, he should be formidable. He’s banking on doing well in more moderate Minnesota, Massachusetts and Vermont Tuesday, then scoring big the following week in Michigan. After that: March 15 primaries in Kasich-friendly Illinois, Missouri and Ohio.
But will he be buried under the establishment avalanche moving toward Rubio? Will voters eager to stop Trump move away from Kasich? He needs to convince people he’s still got a chance, and that’s going to be difficult.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the margin by which Donald Trump won the Nevada caucus. He took 45.9 percent of the caucus vote, more than the next two candidates combined.