Missouri tilts toward Trump as billionaire racks up more big wins

Live: Supporters of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, watch a monitor as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., drops out of the presidential race Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Live: Supporters of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, watch a monitor as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., drops out of the presidential race Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) AP

With Marco Rubio out of the race, Ted Cruz is now the clearest, best chance Republicans have to stop Donald Trump.

It’s the scenario the increasingly nervous Stop-Trump movement has been aching to see. Finally, they get the chance to go almost head-to-head against the billionaire businessman with Cruz. While not their ideal choice, he does bring a committed, enthusiastic conservative army along with plenty of campaign cash.

Tuesday helped clear the field, although it’s still possible that no candidate will win enough delegates to wrap up the race before July’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Trump won in Illinois and North Carolina and his big Florida victory ended Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign. In the final race of the night, Trump held a slim lead of less than 1,800 votes over Cruz in Missouri with more than 99 percent of the vote counted.

Well after midnight, state elections officials said they had stopped vote counting and will resume later today.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio won his home state — his first victory of the primary season — and a campaign memo said he’s well-positioned to pick up Rubio support. But he’s shown little strength elsewhere, needs campaign money and is far behind in the delegate count.

In a concession speech delivered less than half an hour after the Florida polls closed, Rubio congratulated Trump, wagging a finger and shushing members of the audience who booed his kind words.

But then he devoted most of his remarks to warn against the anger and frustration that has fueled Trump’s political rise.

“The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party,” Rubio said, as disconsolate family members stood by onstage in Miami. “They’re going to leave us a fractured nation.”

The son of Cuban immigrants and, at age 44, the youngest candidate in the field, Rubio was seen as one of the GOP’s rising stars, with a capacity to broaden the party’s support among millennial voters and the fast-growing Latino community.

But he failed to win more than a handful of contests and was never seriously competitive in his home state. Trump took 99 delegates in Florida’s winner take-all-primary, padding his already substantial lead.

Trump, in his victory speech, credited Rubio for running a “tough campaign.”

Though Trump mercilessly mocked Rubio in recent weeks, calling him “little Marco,” he briefly changed his tune during his victory speech. Trump said during his rally at his Mar-a-Lago resort that the senator was a “tough, smart” candidate who has “a great future.”

At his rally at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, Trump declared that “something is happening” in the Republican Party that is being noticed “all over the world.”

He touted increased voter turnout and a rise in new voters who have come out to support him.

Cruz’s tough job

Cruz does face a difficult task. The senator from Texas will need to win about 80 percent of the remaining GOP delegates to get the 1,237 needed for nomination. Trump, who won all 99 Florida delegates Tuesday and was likely to win many more, needs to get only about 60 percent.

Still, Cruz has three reasons for glimmers of optimism:

▪  He’s competitive one-on-one against Trump and Clinton.

Exit polls in North Carolina and Missouri on Tuesday suggested Cruz would top Trump in a one-on-one match. Far more Republicans in those states and in national surveys saw Cruz as more honest and trustworthy and having the right experience than Trump.

An ABC News-Washington Post survey this month showed Cruz would beat Trump head-to-head among Republicans by 13 percentage points. And Cruz is well-positioned to pick up Rubio supporters — 47 percent back Cruz as a second choice, well ahead of the 27 percent who picked Kasich, according to Morning Consult poll this week.

In a general election matchup, Cruz and Democratic front-runner Clinton are in a virtual tie in the latest RealClearPolitics average, an important Cruz talking point. But Trump trails Clinton by about 6 points. Kasich actually does better than any Republican, up an average of 7.4 percentage points over the former secretary of state.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., who trails Clinton in the Democratic race, runs stronger against all three Republicans.

▪  Different Republican delegate allocation rules could help.

Cruz has quietly piled up delegates by picking them up in pieces with strong if not winning showings. Starting with Tuesday’s votes in Florida and Ohio, states have the power to award all their delegates to the winner.

▪  Cruz tends to do well in more rural and Western states — he’s won in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Wyoming, Idaho, Maine, Oklahoma and his home state of Texas. The coming states of Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota are winner-take-all for their delegates.

He won’t be favored to win the upcoming Northeastern and Pacific Coast states. But not all are winner-take-all and he can gain delegates with more strong finishes.

Cruz said his “friend and colleague” Marco Rubio ran “an optimistic campaign focused on the future of our party.”

In a statement released shortly after the Florida senator suspended his presidential campaign, Cruz said he’s certain Rubio will continue to be “a champion for limitless opportunity in America.”

Stopping Trump

The Stop-Trump movement is desperate for a viable alternative.

The chaos at Trump’s recent rallies has hardened the anti-Trump forces more than ever, elevating their fear his candidacy could hurt and embarrass the Republican brand.

If Cruz is seen as having the only realistic chance to block Trump, chances are GOP establishment figures and voters will rally around him. Nearly half the North Carolina Republicans who made up their minds in the last few days voted for Cruz on Tuesday, while 28 percent chose Trump. Trump also faltered in the closing days in Ohio, where Kasich topped him among late-deciders, 59 to 25 percent.

Cruz retains durable support among staunch conservatives. In North Carolina, where 36 percent of GOP voters regard themselves as very conservative, network exit polls showed him ahead of Trump by 17 points. He topped Trump by 18 in Illinois and by 22 in Missouri among the same groups.

Exit polls in Florida indicated Trump won about half of whites and nearly 3 in 10 Hispanics. He was also backed by most voters without a college degree, and about 4 in 10 of those with a college diploma.

Most GOP voters in Florida are looking for a political outsider and three-quarters voted for Trump. Four in 10 are angry with Washington and 6 in 10 of them prefer Trump.

Trump was backed by nearly two-thirds of those who would like to see immigrants who are here illegally deported; those who want to give workers without documentation a chance to apply for legal status divided their votes closely between the two.

For Rubio, who ended his campaign Tuesday, it was a rough night across nearly all demographics.

Rubio was backed by voters looking for experience, by voters who are not so negative about politics and the government and by those opposed to denying Muslims entry into the country. Unfortunately for him, those voters made up a small portion of Republicans who turned out.

Kasich hopeful

There will be talk of establishment types warming to Kasich in the days ahead. But his best chance for the nomination appears to be a contested convention. He’s said he needs to at least win Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut later this spring and their 150 delegates to even be viable.

He told CNN on Tuesday that more than 1,000 delegates are yet to be selected, and “We’ve only been paid attention to the last two or three weeks.”

“No candidate will win 1,237 delegates,” said the memo from John Weaver, a Texas consultant who is the Kasich campaign’s chief strategist. “With a narrowing field, Gov. Kasich is the candidate best positioned to go toe-to-toe in the remaining states.”

Trouble is, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is a vocal Trump backer, and a Rutgers-Eagleton poll last month had Trump far out in front in that state. Trump also has a big lead in recent Pennsylvania surveys.

Trump, meanwhile, is poised to keep marching toward a bigger lead in delegates. The next big state to vote is Wisconsin on April 5, with 42 delegates. Then it’s New York on April 19, with 95 delegates at stake. It’s Trump’s home state, and a Siena Research Institute poll this month found Trump with a huge lead while Cruz ran fourth.

The Trump opponents’ best chance could be the final day of voting, June 7. Five states with 303 delegates vote that day, including Cruz-friendly Montana, South Dakota and New Mexico, plus New Jersey and California.

Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press and the Tribune Washington Bureau.