Donald Trump’s losses to Sen. Ted Cruz in Kansas and Maine on Saturday, coupled with closer-than-expected victories in Louisiana and Kentucky, have heightened the prospects for a two-man race, though many Republican leaders eye Cruz warily.
Republicans hoping to halt Donald Trump’s march to their party’s presidential nomination emerged from the weekend’s voting contests newly emboldened by Trump’s uneven electoral performance and by some nascent signs that he may be peaking with voters.
Outside groups are moving to deploy more than $10 million in new attack ads across Florida and millions more in Illinois, casting Trump as a liberal, a huckster and a draft dodger. Trump’s reed-thin organization appears to be catching up with him, suggesting he could be at a disadvantage if he is forced into a protracted slog for delegates.
And vote tallies Saturday made clear Trump has had at least some trouble building upon his intensely loyal following, leaving him increasingly dependent upon landslides in early voting.
In Louisiana, where Trump amassed a lead of more than 20 percentage points in early voting, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas actually bested him, narrowly, among voters who cast their ballots Saturday.
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“Trump has to worry about the consistent late-voter rejection of his candidacy,” said Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and Republican presidential candidate.
Trump’s losses to Cruz in Kansas and Maine on Saturday, coupled with closer-than-expected victories in Louisiana and Kentucky, have heightened the prospects for a two-man race, though many Republican leaders eye Cruz warily.
As his rivals have despaired over the race’s vulgar turn, Trump struck a subdued tone as returns came in Saturday night. He aborted his first attempt to take the stage and left the room after asking reporters if the race in Kentucky had been called.
When he finally did speak, some of his usual bombast was missing, even as he insisted that it was time for Sen. Marco Rubio to quit the race and that Cruz cannot win more moderate northeastern or coastal states.
“Donald Trump was uncharacteristically low energy,” Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in 2012, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” taunting Trump with the insult Trump had employed against Jeb Bush.
Yet despite the renewed optimism of his opponents, the path to deny Trump the nomination remains narrow and fraught.
Cruz’s emergence as the most credible alternative has proved both a boost and a complication for those seeking to derail the New Yorker. Cruz has tried to undercut calls for a contested convention to deny Trump the nomination, which Cruz says would yield a “manifest revolt” among voters. But Cruz has done little so far to threaten Trump’s lead.
Indeed, much of Cruz’s late-breaking support Saturday seemed to come at the expense of Rubio, not Trump. And the Cruz campaign’s message of ideological purity and religious faith is a less natural fit for many of the delegate-rich Midwestern and coastal states that remain on the map.
“Saturday proved that Trump can be contained and even beaten,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime Republican strategist, who looked ahead to this summer’s Republican convention in Cleveland. “The question is whether the field is going to allow for it moving forward. The most likely scenarios remain that Trump gets enough before Cleveland, or nobody does. The latter moved a little closer to realistic Saturday.”
Rubio’s path is much less certain, despite his lopsided victory in Puerto Rico on Sunday. Even his supporters said the results Saturday seriously undercut the premise of his bid: that he is the only candidate who can unify the Republican Party and defeat Trump.
“Look, I’m supportive of Marco; I’m very hopeful,” said former Sen. Mel Martinez, who had supported Bush. “But it’s a great concern that time has kind of caught up with this whole thing.”
The Stop Trump forces are beginning to pour money into television ads, with a particular focus on the big states voting March 15. Four different groups have spent at least $10 million in Florida so far, according to trackers of media spending. Television stations in Florida are already awash in such ads.
Two from the American Future Fund, which has spent $2 million in Florida and Illinois, show decorated veterans assailing Trump as a poseur on military matters.
Michael Waltz, a retired Special Forces colonel, blisteringly calls Trump a draft dodger and, effectively, a coward. “Donald Trump hasn’t served this country a day in his life,” he says. “Don’t let Trump fool you.”
And a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, Tom Hanton, bluntly questions Trump’s toughness: “Trump would not have survived the POW experience. He would have been probably the first one to fold.”
Separately, Club for Growth Action, an arm of the anti-tax group that was first to run ads in Iowa against Trump, has placed $2 million in commercials attacking him in Illinois on top of $1 million in Florida.
A third group, Our Principles PAC, has reserved $3.5 million in Illinois and Florida and is sending direct mail to voters in Florida. A group supporting Rubio, Conservative Solutions, is spending several million dollars in Florida as well.
The deluge of negative messages from a patchwork of groups — highlighting claims by angry customers of Trump’s defunct educational company and his history of shape-shifting positions — already appears to have hurt Trump’s cause.
In conversations with some allies, who insisted on anonymity to relay those private talks, Trump campaign aides have expressed concern about the money being spent against him on television.
The Trump campaign has no pollster, so it is governed by public polling and what the candidate himself observes while watching cable news.
This off-the-cuff approach, and a string of self-inflicted wounds — refusing to clearly and immediately reject the support of the white supremacist David Duke, boasting about his sexual endowment on the debate stage and withdrawing from the Conservative Political Action Committee’s conference over the weekend — have fueled days of unfavorable coverage of Trump’s candidacy.
“Trump has total disdain for the professional political class,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist. “He thinks they’re all about making money. Pollsters are hacks. Organization doesn’t matter. Their idea of a political organization is taking phone calls from some elected officials who wanted to endorse and making it work in the schedule. And that’ll catch up with you eventually.”
Still, members of the GOP establishment have been left to grapple with what was once unthinkable: rallying around Cruz, who built his reputation bashing them.
“Some hope with Ted, no hope with Donald,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on “Meet the Press,” summarizing the party’s dim view of its remaining options. Neither, he suggested, would be likely to expand the Republican tent: “We’re in a demographic death spiral.”
Graham said he received a phone call from Cruz after Super Tuesday — part of efforts by the Cruz campaign to reach out, discreetly, to donors and party officials who might be interested in rallying around him.
With Rubio faltering badly across the board Saturday, Cruz is moving to compete aggressively in Florida. He has also weighed the merits of a significant push in Ohio, the home state of Gov. John Kasich.
Both states are winner-take-all, and the Cruz campaign insists it would only dedicate substantial resources if it thought it could win outright. But the effort is risky: It could boost Trump, if Cruz diminishes his non-Trump rivals without a victory.
The Cruz campaign says it can reach the requisite delegate threshold of 1,237 without winning Florida or Ohio, thanks to its superior organization in later-voting states, many of which are closed to non-Republicans.
But several party strategists have disputed this math, even if the contests March 15 force some of Cruz’s competitors from the race.
A moment of reckoning for Rubio will come Tuesday in Michigan, a state that has concentrations of the kinds of voters he performs well with: professional, younger, highly educated and upper-income. But a poll released Sunday by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal showed Rubio trailing Cruz and Trump. Trump received 41 percent, followed by Cruz at 22 percent, Rubio at 17 percent and Kasich at 13 percent.
Despite this, some Michigan Republicans say Kasich may emerge as the state’s establishment choice. And in a race that has often felt like a reality-television show, Kasich secured an apt endorsement Sunday: that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will replace Trump as the host of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”