Donald Trump rolled up big victories in the Northeast and across the South on Super Tuesday, taking a giant step toward clinching the GOP nomination as the contest moves to a series of stiff challenges for his beleaguered rivals.
Riding a wave of anger and seething frustration, Trump carried Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and Vermont.
Sen. Ted Cruz won his home state of Texas, Alaska and next-door neighbor Oklahoma, strengthening his claim to be the last man standing between Trump and the nomination.
But even as Cruz called for others to quit the race, he faces a steep road ahead as the contest shifts away from the South and Cruz’s advantage among its religiously oriented, deeply conservative voters.
Happy or not — and many Republicans are not — it appears increasingly probable that Trump will carry the GOP banner into the fall campaign, most likely against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
That doesn’t mean, though, establishment forces were prepared to surrender.
A political action committee that spent heavily to defeat Trump in Iowa announced late Tuesday it was intensifying efforts aimed at the billionaire insurgent, promising a TV blitz and daily attacks on his record and business dealings.
Their best hope may be Trump falling short of the delegates he needs to win outright and a rival wrestling the nomination away at a contested convention, something that has never happened in modern times.
“The chances of beating Trump outright look so much tougher after these Super Tuesday contests,” said Kevin Madden, a former Mitt Romney strategist who has stayed neutral in the GOP contest.
The biggest Super Tuesday losers appeared to be Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who claimed a lone victory in Minnesota, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who did not come close to winning anywhere save Vermont, where he was running second.
Rubio and Kasich, who has yet to place first anywhere, must now wage what amount to do-or-die campaigns in their respective home states on March 15.
With giant chandeliers overhead and 10 furled American flags behind him, Trump congratulated Cruz on his performance, then vowed to beat Rubio — calling him “a lightweight” and “the little senator” — in two weeks in Florida. He leads Rubio by 20 percentage points or more in opinion polls.
Trump rejected the notion that he was pulling the GOP apart. “Look, we have expanded the Republican Party,” he said, adding later: “I am a unifier.”
He also vowed, once he is the nominee, to have a singular focus. “Once we get all of this finished, I am going to go after one person,” he said. “That’s Hillary Clinton.”
The Super Tuesday balloting, which extended from Vermont to Alaska, marked the single biggest day of the 2016 primary season. At stake were 595 delegates in 11 states, or close to half the number needed to secure the GOP nomination at the party’s convention in July.
Once more, signs of an angry electorate abounded.
In Georgia and Alabama — both of which Trump won handily — nearly 6 in 10 Republican voters said they felt betrayed by their own party leaders, according to exit poll interviews.
At least half the voters across the 11 states said they believed the next president should be from outside the political establishment, a dynamic that has boosted Trump throughout his improbable presidential run.
With so much ground to cover and so little time, every candidate but Trump — with his command of a national audience — had to make tactical decisions.
Cruz, a favorite of Christian conservatives, focused mainly on carrying his home state to avoid a politically fatal loss in Texas.
Speaking to raucous supporters at a suburban Houston country club, he urged rivals to quit the presidential race so he could face Trump one-on-one.
“The voters have spoken,” he said. “Tomorrow morning, we have a choice. 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.”
Rubio hopscotched among states, picking up Super Tuesday endorsements — from Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — as he sought to rally the party establishment behind him as the stop-Trump candidate.
Appearing Tuesday night in Miami, he vowed to press on, looking ahead to Florida’s primary.
“Two weeks from tonight right here in Florida, we are going to send a message loud and clear,” he said. “We are going to send a message that the party of Lincoln and Reagan and the presidency of the United States will never be held by a con artist.”
Kasich was mainly focused on hanging on until the March 15 primary in Ohio. The fifth candidate still running, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, was not a serious factor in any of the contests.
Donald Trump, joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, speaks to the media on election night at his Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla.(John Moore / Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton greets supporters as she arrives at her Super Tuesday rally in Miami.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Ted Cruz poses for a photo after speaking to supporters at his election night party at the Redneck Country Club in Stafford, Texas.(Thomas B. Shea / EPA)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his wife, Jane, speaks at an election night party in in Essex Junction, Vt.(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at an election night rally at Tropical Park in Miami.(Brian Blanco / EPA)
Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to a couple thousand supporters in Louisville, Ky.(Mark Cornelison / Lexington Herald-Leader)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds a rally at a film studio in Miami.(Joe Skipper / European Pressphoto Agency)
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton cheer as Super Tuesday results are reported at a campaign rally in Miami.(Joe Skipper / European Pressphoto Agency)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders arrives at a Super Tuesday rally in Essex Junction, Vt.(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with supporters in Vermont after winning the state’s primary on Super Tuesday.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Port Columbus airport in Columbus, Ohio.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville.(Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images)
Penny Novack shows her support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in Buckland, Mass.(Matthew Cavanaugh / Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets patrons at Mapps Coffee in Minneapolis.(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
Voters line up to cast ballots at Flint Baptist Church in Flint, Texas.(Sarah A. Miller / Tyler Morning Telegraph)
Ohio Gov. John Kasich addresses a town hall-style meeting at George Mason University Law School in Fairfax, Va.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders talks to reporters afer voting in Burlington, Vt.(Herb Swanson / EPA)
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a campaign rally in Andover, Minn.(Jim Mone / Assoicated Press)
Sen. Ted Cruz talks to reporters before casting his vote in the Texas Republican primary.(Pat Sullivan / Associated Press)
Hillary Clinton makes a campaign stop at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis on Super Tuesday.(Jim Gehrz / Star Tribune)
A girl waits while her mother votes at a polling place in Edmond, Okla.(J Pat Carter / EPA)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump signs autographs at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville.(Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images)
A student takes a selfie photo with Republican presidential candidate John Kasich at George Mason University Law School in Fairfax, Va.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio prepares to take the stage for a campaign appearance in Andover, Minn.(Craig Lassig / EPA)
Trump campaigned as he has throughout the race, swooping into states for big rallies and dominating the discussion by nabbing his first major endorsements — among them New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who joined him at his news conference Tuesday night, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — and targeting his opponents, especially Rubio, with a series of scathing attacks.
He also weathered yet another controversy after failing to disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in a Sunday morning interview on CNN. Trump distanced himself from Duke a day later, saying a “lousy earpiece” kept him from properly hearing the questions.
None of that seemed to matter to voters like Texan Shelly Wells, who spurned her home-state senator to vote for Trump.
“He can get things done,” said Wells, 59, an accountant with an oil-field services company, after casting her ballot in Katy, a Houston suburb hard hit by the recent decline in oil prices. “He’s the man who can get the job done and change this back to America instead of a third-world country.”
With candidates fighting for survival, an already harsh campaign has assumed an even sharper, meaner and more personal edge in recent days. At times, it seemed downright bizarre.
Cruz leveled unsubstantiated charges that Trump had Mafia connections. Trump attacked Rubio over his propensity to perspire. Rubio questioned both Trump’s temperament and bladder control.
But the Florida senator, who began his campaign vowing to be an upbeat messenger, did not seem altogether comfortable slipping into Trump mode. He spent days calling him a con man and hypocrite, mocked his “spray tan” and even made fun of his anatomical attributes.
Then Rubio abruptly changed his tone at a Super Tuesday-eve rally in Oklahoma. When someone in the crowd shouted, “Donald Trump has small hands!” — picking up on a Rubio double-entendre — the candidate demurred.
“We’re not talking about that today,” Rubio said. “I want this to be a serious election.”
Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Katy and Michael Finnegan and Seema Mehta in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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