LAS VEGAS – Donald Trump’s grasp on the Republican presidential nomination is tightening, and the billionaire businessman’s rivals get one more chance to challenge the Republican front-runner on the debate stage before next week’s slate of nearly a dozen Super Tuesday contests.
The situation is likely more dire for the other Republican candidates than they’d like voters to believe. A candidate must have 1,237 state delegates to win the Republican nomination at the National Convention this summer. So far, Trump has 82, Sen. Ted Cruz has 17 and Sen. Marco Rubio has 16.
Rubio and Cruz have so far shown little willingness to take on the former reality television star when the national spotlight shines brightest. That could change Thursday night in Houston.
“The vast and overwhelming majority of Republicans do not want Donald Trump to be our nominee,” Rubio told NBC, suggesting that Trump is winning only because the other candidates are splitting up the majority of the electorate.
For his part, the New York billionaire predicted the relative civility between Rubio and himself is about to disappear. The ninth Republican debate of the presidential campaign will take place just a few days before 11 states hold Republican primary elections that will either cement Trump’s dominance – or let his rivals slow his march to his party’s presidential nomination.
Trump has proved largely immune to traditional political attacks. The task is made more complicated by the shift from single-state campaigns to a new phase of the race, where the candidates must compete across several states at the same time. Next Tuesday features voting in a mix of states that include Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Virginia, with more to come in the weeks after.
“Now these campaigns are in the position of having to use debates to try and shape or change voter perceptions across more than a dozen states in the space of 18 or 19 days,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “That’s a daunting task.”
Trump won Nevada’s presidential caucuses on Tuesday with more than 45 per cent of the vote, scoring his third consecutive primary victory in dominant fashion. Rubio edged out Cruz for runner-up for the second consecutive race, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson far off the pace.
As they seek to become the Trump alternative, Cruz and Rubio have significant liabilities of their own.
Cruz comes into the debate at the weakest point of his presidential campaign after a staff shakeup and three consecutive third-place finishes.
The Texas senator ousted a senior aide on Monday after the aide promoted an inaccurate news report that Rubio had condemned the Bible during a chance encounter with Cruz’s father. The aide’s dismissal helps legitimize Trump and Rubio charges that Cruz has been running an unethical campaign.
Even while vulnerable, Cruz signalled an aggressive stance heading into the debate. He lashed out at Trump and Rubio as “Washington dealmakers” while talking to reporters in Houston on Wednesday. Rubio, Cruz said, had worked with Democrats to craft an immigration overhaul, while Trump has given money to Democrats and backed their priorities at times in recent years.
“I don’t think the people of Texas and I don’t think the people of this country want another Washington dealmaker to go and surrender more to the Democrats, given in to the failed liberal agenda,” Cruz said.
Rubio, meanwhile, is just one debate removed from a primetime meltdown. The Florida senator repeated himself several times in a New Hampshire debate less than three weeks ago, triggering what he now calls “the New Hampshire disappointment.” He avoided a similar mistake in the subsequent debate, but critics in both parties will be laser-focused on anything that suggests the 44-year-old legislator isn’t sufficiently prepared to move into the White House.
Emboldened by the recent departure of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush from the race, Rubio has fresh momentum after two consecutive second-place finishes. His team is convinced they must dispatch with Cruz before turning their full attention to taking down Trump.
Rubio said Wednesday he’d respond to Trump and Cruz if attacked, but that, “I didn’t run for office to tear up other Republicans.”
On the Democratic side, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was looking for a commanding victory over Sanders in Saturday’s South Carolina primary to give her a boost heading into Super Tuesday. Polls show her with a huge advantage among African-Americans. That bodes well for her prospects in the Southern states that vote next week. Also on Wednesdsay, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid endorsed Clinton for the presidential nomination.