LAS VEGAS – Tuesday night’s Nevada caucuses are a critical test for the Republican Party’s leading presidential candidates.
Donald Trump is fighting for a third straight victory to expand a delegate lead that could soon become insurmountable. Marco Rubio is trying to prove he can build on recent momentum. And Ted Cruz wants to keep from spiraling out of contention.
“I think it’s the most unpredictable of all the races we’ve had so far,” said Rubio, the Florida senator who is emerging as the Republican establishment’s candidate.
Cruz, a fiery conservative popular among voters on the party’s right, needs to recover from one of the weakest moments of his campaign. After denying charges of dishonest tactics for several weeks, the Texas senator on Monday asked for the resignation of a senior aide who spread an inaccurate news report suggesting Rubio had criticized the Bible.
WATCH: Trump turns up tough rhetoric in Las Vegas, as Cruz caught up in controversy
That was just days after Cruz finished a disappointing third in South Carolina. Another disappointing finish in Nevada would raise new questions about his viability heading into a crucial set of Super Tuesday states on March 1.
“There’s something wrong with this guy,” Trump said with his usual measure of tact during a Las Vegas rally Monday night. The former reality television star called the Cruz “sick.”
Nevada marks the first Republican election in the West and the fourth of the campaign as the candidates try to collect enough delegates to win the party’s nomination later this year.
Although Nevada has relatively few delegates, it is the first measure of voter sentiment in the vast western region, much as South Carolina was the first glimpse at the South’s preferences last weekend.
WATCH: Rubio, Cruz fighting to beat Trump in Nevada
Nevada is 28 per cent Latino, 9 per cent Asian-American and leads the nation with the highest rate of people living in the country illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Its immigrant communities – 19 per cent of its population was born outside the United States – have helped turn a once reliably Republican state into one that backed Obama twice. Many analysts attribute that to hardline Republican positions on immigration.
A Republican field that included a dozen candidates a month ago has been reduced to five. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson remain in the race.
Trump’s rivals concede they are running out of time to stop him.
The election calendar suggests that if they don’t slow the New York billionaire by mid-March, they may not ever. Trump swept all of South Carolina’s 50 delegates, giving him a total of 67 compared to Cruz and Rubio who have 11 and 10, respectively. It takes 1,237 delegates to capture the Republican nomination.
WATCH: Is Donald Trump unstoppable?
There are 30 delegates at stake in Nevada, awarded to candidates in proportion to their share of the statewide vote so long as they earn at least 3.33 per cent.
Rubio and Cruz have been attacking each other viciously in recent days, an indication they know Trump can be stopped only if one of them is eliminated. But neither of the first-term Hispanic senators is predicting victory in Nevada.
After finishes of third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in South Carolina, Rubio needs a win soon to support his theory that he is the primary beneficiary of former Florida Gov. Bush’s recent departure from the race.