LAS VEGAS – Donald Trump decisively won Nevada’s Republican caucuses for his third straight victory Tuesday as his two main rivals, senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, battled for second place in an increasingly urgent effort to slam the brakes on the Trump juggernaut.
The billionaire businessman now can claim victories in the West, the South and Northeast – a testament to his broad appeal among the mad-as-hell voters making their voices heard in the 2016 presidential race. His rivals are running out of time to stop him.
“We’re winning, winning, winning the country,” Trump declared. “Soon, the country is going to start winning, winning, winning.”
Ticking off a list of upcoming primary states where he’s leading in preference polls, Trump predicted he’ll soon be able to claim the Republican presidential nomination. “It’s going to be an amazing two months,” he told a raucous crowd at a Las Vegas casino. “We might not even need the two months, folks, to be honest.”
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Entrance polls 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.
After winning in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, Trump has built up momentum heading into March 1, or Super Tuesday, when Republicans hold nominating contests in a dozen states.
In the Democratic race, front-runner Hillary Clinton was looking for a commanding victory over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Saturday’s South Carolina primary to give her a boost heading into Super Tuesday. Polls show the former secretary of state with a huge advantage among African-Americans which bodes well for her prospects in South Carolina and then the Southern states which vote on Super Tuesday where blacks make up a large segment of the Democratic primary electorate.
Nevada was a critical test for Rubio and Cruz, who are battling to emerge as the clear alternative to Trump. Rubio was out to prove he can build on recent momentum, while Cruz was looking for a spark to help him recover from a particularly rocky stretch in his campaign.
Lagging far behind the two senators in the Nevada vote were Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
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Rubio, already campaigning in Michigan as caucus results rolled in, was projecting confidence that he can consolidate the non-Trump voters who have been splintering among an assortment of Republican candidates, saying, “we have incredible room to grow.” 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.
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But after finishing third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in South Carolina, Rubio needs a win soon to support the idea he can beat Trump. Republican establishment heavyweights have been flooding to Rubio in recent days, including several senators and governors, but that might not help win over an angry Republican base looking for a political outsider like Trump.
Cruz, a fiery conservative popular among voters on the Republican right, 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. Another disappointing finish in Nevada would raise new questions about his viability heading into a crucial batch of Super Tuesday states on March 1.
In a more muted address, Cruz gave Trump his due for winning in Nevada and then pressed the argument that he’s the only candidate who can stop the real estate mogul.
Harking back to own win in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses, Cruz told supporters “the only campaign that has defeated Donald Trump is this campaign.”
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Then, looking for opportunities that lie ahead in his home state of Texas and elsewhere, he added: “One week from today will be the most important night of this campaign: Super Tuesday.”
The election calendar suggests that if Trump’s rivals don’t slow him 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. There were 30 delegates at stake in Nevada, and a whopping 595 available one week later on Super Tuesday bonanza.
Nevada’s caucusing played out in schools, community centres and places of worship across the state – a process that’s been chaotic in the past.
The Republican field that included a dozen candidates a month ago has been reduced to five, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush the latest to drop out after a disappointing finish in South Carolina. Kasich and Carson could play spoilers as Trump, Cruz and Rubio, battle for delegates with an increasing sense of urgency.
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 in Nevada.
Benac reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Las Vegas and Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.