Donald Trump’s seven Super Tuesday wins helped pad his substantial delegate lead – but not enough to dispirit his top rivals, who still see a path to toppling the Republican front-runner and taking the fight to the convention if necessary.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, at the very least, seem determined to compete for every vote through the March 15 contests, which could make for the most consequential night of the GOP campaign.
That’s when the home states of Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich vote. And both states award every delegate on the table to the winner.
“If I win Florida, what does that math look like?” Rubio told Fox News on Wednesday, brushing aside pressure to drop out.
Here’s where the delegate math stands now:
It takes 1,237 delegates to clinch the nomination. Trump has 319; Cruz has 226; and Rubio has 110.
According to Associated Press estimates, Trump needs to lock down 52 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch the party nod.
March 15 may provide the best clue as to whether that’s likely.
On one hand, if Rubio were to win Florida and Kasich were to win Ohio, they would continue to hold down Trump’s numbers even if he wins elsewhere.
On the other, a Trump victory in those states and beyond would truly give him an aura of inevitability – not to mention put immense pressure on Rubio and Kasich to drop out.
Rubio already is facing that pressure from Trump and Cruz, who wants non-Trump voters to unite behind his campaign, which he claims is the only one that can confront and defeat the billionaire businessman.
“So long as the field remains divided, Donald Trump's path to the nomination remains more likely and that would be a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives, and for the nation," he said Tuesday night. "And, after tonight, we have seen that our campaign is the only campaign that has beaten, that can beat, and that will beat Donald Trump."
Cruz and the rest of the candidates will have their next chance to make their case to the American public on Thursday, when they face off for a Fox News debate in Detroit, their first post-Super Tuesday showdown.
One candidate has already bowed out of the event, Ben Carson -- who, after a disappointing Super Tuesday, announced he sees no "political path forward," while stopping just short of suspending his campaign. The debate Thursday could see Rubio and Cruz ratchet up their fight for the not-Trump mantle, with Rubio clearly lagging right now in the race for second.
Cruz won in his delegate-rich home state of Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska on Tuesday. Together with his leadoff win in the Iowa caucuses, Cruz has claimed wins in four states.
Rubio, who has seen GOP establishment figures line up behind his campaign especially since Jeb Bush dropped out, has struggled to account for his performance to date.
The senator did claim his first win Tuesday night in Minnesota. And – while touting the fact he’s picked up delegates even in states he didn’t win – he implicitly questioned Cruz’s ability to win in some of the upcoming contests, claiming several states coming up “look more like Virginia” where Rubio beat Cruz in the race for second Tuesday.
He’s referring to states like Illinois and even Michigan, with a more moderate primary electorate.
But Deep South states like Mississippi and Louisiana also are fast-approaching on the calendar.
“There are some states that are going to be favorable to [Cruz],” Cruz supporter and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told Fox News. While a voting bloc thought to be Cruz’s strong suit – evangelicals – are still breaking for Trump in some Southern states, Abbott suggested those voters will start shifting soon to Cruz.
One scenario is for Rubio and Cruz to stay in the race if only to prevent Trump from achieving the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
Asked about that possibility, Rubio told Fox News “we’re going to do whatever it takes” to prevent the nomination from falling into Trump’s hands – but said the plan is to clinch the nomination, not simply prevent Trump from doing so.
Rubio is putting it all on the line in Florida, meanwhile, vowing Wednesday that he’ll win.
Trump is threatening to crush those hopes, and cites polls that show him well ahead of Rubio.
“We're going to go to Florida. We're going to spend so much time in Florida. We've got about a 20-point lead,” Trump said Tuesday night, at a post-primary press conference in the Sunshine State.
Trump already is positioning himself as a general election candidate, increasingly taking swings at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who also had a good night on Tuesday with seven wins to Bernie Sanders’ four.
But he allowed, with the GOP race still open, that another candidate might also be able to take her on – taking another swipe at Rubio in the process.
“I don't think Marco is going to be able to beat her. … I think Ted's going to have a very hard time. But Ted at least has a shot because at least he's won a little bit,” Trump said.