WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination could face its stiffest challenge on the debate stage Thursday night as top rivals Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz know they must land damaging blows against the front-runner in the final days before next week’s Super Tuesday primaries.
Trump’s surprising hold on the top spot has remained strong in the raucous contest to pick a Republican candidate in the November election, despite his politically incorrect statements against Hispanics and Muslims, salty language and a self-funded campaign without spending on television advertising.
He may well become the inevitable Republican after the Super Tuesday votes in 11 states, with 595 delegates at stake. So far, after four primary and caucus contests, Trump has 82 delegates, Cruz has 17 and Rubio has 16. A candidate must have 1,237 state delegates to win the Republican nomination at the party’s convention this summer.
Rubio, who has support from some mainstream Republican heavyweights, has shown little willingness to take on the former reality television star. That could change Thursday night.
“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 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 race now shifts from single-state campaigns to a new phase where the candidates must compete across several states at the same time. Tuesday features voting in a mix of states that include Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Virginia, with more to come in the weeks afterward.
“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 victory. Rubio edged out Cruz for runner-up for the second consecutive contest, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson far behind.
As they seek to become the Trump alternative, Cruz and Rubio have significant liabilities.
Cruz comes into the debate at the weakest point of his presidential campaign after a staff shakeup and three consecutive third-place finishes.
Rubio, meanwhile, had a primetime stumble in a recent debate, repeating himself several times in what he now calls “the New Hampshire disappointment.” He avoided a similar mistake in the subsequent debate, but critics will be focused on anything that suggests the 44-year-old legislator isn’t sufficiently prepared to move into the White House.
On the Democratic side, former secretary of state 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 her with a huge advantage among African-Americans. That bodes well for her prospects in the Southern states that vote next week.
Sanders spent Thursday in Midwest states that hold early March primaries and have much whiter electorates than South Carolina and the Deep South. But he insisted that he is not writing off those states.
“We have waged a very, very vigorous campaign,” he said, pointing out his initial single-digit polling in South Carolina. “We have closed the gap very, very significantly.”