LAS VEGAS (AP) — With his big win in Nevada, Donald Trump claimed a third straight commanding victory in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Marco Rubio edged Ted Cruz in a tight race for second that offered little evidence Republicans are ready to unite behind one strong alternative to the New York billionaire.
The contenders now head into Super Tuesday, the largest one-day delegate prize of the nomination fight, and Trump is predicting that the relative civility between Rubio and himself may soon fray.
“So far he’s been very nice and I think I’ve been very nice to him,” he told NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday. “We haven’t been in that mode yet but probably it’ll happen.” He meant attack mode.
Trump picked up his first endorsements from current members of Congress even as much of the GOP establishment rallies behind Rubio. Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York praised Trump as a strong leader.
He’s got “the guts and the fortitude” to help U.S. companies compete with China and to take on foreign threats such as the Islamic State group and North Korea, Collins said.
With victories now under his belt in the West, South and Northeast, a gleeful Trump is oozing even more confidence than usual that the GOP nomination is within reach.
“It’s going to be an amazing two months,” he told a raucous crowd at a Las Vegas casino Tuesday night. “We might not even need the two months, folks, to be honest.”
Trump’s rivals know they are running out of time to stop him.
Behind Trump, Rubio beat Cruz by fewer than 2,000 votes, according to The Associated Press vote count.
Also on the “Today” show, Rubio said most Republicans don’t want Trump to be their nominee for president.
“The sooner we can get this race narrowed, I think the easier it’s going to be to stop Donald Trump, he said. After finishing third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in South Carolina and Nevada, Rubio needs a win soon to support the idea he can beat Trump.
Cruz, for his part, skipped right past Nevada’s underwhelming verdict for him in his caucus-night speech and pinned his hopes on the big round of voting that’s coming up next, saying: “One week from today will be the most important night of this campaign: Super Tuesday.”
The candidates were fanning out to their next targets of opportunity as the lights went out in Las Vegas: Trump was campaigning Wednesday in Virginia, then on to Texas and Oklahoma. Rubio and Cruz both headed for Texas.
Entrance polls in Nevada captured the sentiment propelling Trump’s insurgent campaign: Six in 10 caucus goers said they were angry with the way the government is working, and Trump got about half of them.
Cruz, a fiery conservative popular among voters on the GOP’s right, had finished a disappointing third in South Carolina after spending much of the past two weeks denying charges of dishonest campaign tactics and defending his integrity. Nevada raises more questions about his viability.
On Wednesday, Cruz won the endorsement of the governor in his home state of Texas — Greg Abbott. Texas is the largest of the Super Tuesday states voting next week.
The election calendar suggests that if Trump’s rivals don’t slow him by mid-March, they may not ever.
Trump won 14 delegates in Nevada, while Rubio won seven and Cruz got six. John Kasich and Ben Carson each got one, with one delegate left to be allocated.
Overall, Trump has 81 delegates, and Cruz and Rubio have 17 apiece. Kasich has six and Carson has four. It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination.
Super Tuesday offers 595 Republican delegates in 11 states, all awarded proportionally. It’s a huge night for Democrats, too, with contests in 11 states and American Samoa.
Trump, in his victory speech, took on the notion advanced by both Rubio and Cruz that if more GOP candidates drop out of the race, they’ll coalesce around an alternative.
“They keep forgetting that when people drop out, we’re going to get a lot of votes,” he said.
Nevada’s caucusing played out in schools, community centers and places of worship. Count Tracy Brigida, fed up after her husband was laid off from his mining job, among those caucusing for Trump.
“I want a businessman to run the biggest business in the world,” Brigida said as she caucused at a Las Vegas high school.
Jeremy Haight drove straight from his marketing job to caucus for Rubio at the same high school.
“He’s the most level-headed. He hasn’t said anything stupid or crazy … which is really what I think the country needs,” Haight said.
Preliminary results of the entrance poll found that about 3 in 10 early caucus goers said the quality that mattered most to them in choosing a candidate was that he shares their values, slightly more than the quarter who said they want a candidate who can win in November. About a quarter said they want a candidate who can bring change. About 2 in 10 want one who “tells it like it is.”
Trump — no surprise here — was supported by nearly 9 in 10 of the “tell it like it is” voters.
Lagging far behind in the Nevada vote were Kasich and Carson.
The entrance poll survey was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as Republican voters arrived at 25 randomly selected caucus sites.
(© Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)