Cruz and Rubio Playing for Second Place in the SEC

Cruz arrives for a campaign rally near the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta on Saturday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

PINSON, Ala. — No journey through the Southeastern Conference footprint is complete without barbecue. And if you're in this part of Alabama, your restaurant better have photos of Bear Bryant hanging on the wall.  

It's still a ways away before the Crimson Tide takes the field again, but people in these parts are turning out for political rallies like "College Game Day" has come to Tuscaloosa.  

Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio aren't playing to win Tuesday's SEC primaries — they're fighting with front-runner Donald Trump for delegates, hoping to keep him from picking up enough to claim the nomination before the convention and trying to score enough points to stay in the game.  

Both Cruz and Rubio offered up more of their personal income tax returns on Saturday, pushing Trump toward releasing his. Trump has said he will not as long as he is being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. Cruz suggested that Trump's tax returns might show donations to Planned Parenthood or that he does not have the vast wealth he claims to possess.  

Rubio told an audience in Birmingham on Saturday that he was prepared to get in his pickup truck and barnstorm the country if that's what it took to defeat Trump.  

Earlier in the day, while Cruz was rallying supporters from the Georgia state Capitol, Rubio told reporters in the northern Atlanta suburbs, "At the end of the day, when this process is finished, Donald Trump will not have the 1,237 delegates he needs to win, and I will be in this race as long as it takes to prevent that from happening, and to become the nominee."  

But at some point, time will run short.  

With 11 states holding primaries and hundreds of delegates at stake Tuesday, polls show Trump leading in most places, including such SEC states as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas.  

"Super Tuesday is the single-best opportunity to stop Donald Trump and to ensure that we nominate a candidate who is a proven conservative, who is a real conservative," Cruz told reporters. The two senators began launching attacks on Trump from both sides during the CNN Republican debate last week.  

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: Presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., leaves a campaign event near at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., February 27, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rubio leaves a forum at Samford University in Birmingham on Saturday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

That Thursday evening affair became the talk of the town at Ken's Hickory Pit Barbecue here on Saturday night, where regular patrons Bob Blackwell and Bob Mills had settled in at the counter. Blackwell, 78, made an enthusiastic pitch for why he plans to vote for Rubio, saying the Florida senator has the most "gunpowder" of any of the candidates.  

Folks at the restaurant said there were more political ads than they were used to, and that candidates were getting up close and personal with more frequency than when the primaries were later in the cycle.  

Cruz, Rubio and Trump were all barnstorming the South ahead of Tuesday's primary, and people were enthusiastic about getting the attention of national candidates.  

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., plans to appear at a rally Monday in Knoxville to deliver an endorsement to Rubio. He told NBC News: "The stakes are high. If our nominee does not win, Hillary Clinton's justices will control the Supreme Court for 30 years and we'll be stuck with Obamacare forever."  

Alexander's Tennessee colleague Sen. Bob Corker told reporters last week that he could see his home state breaking from others.  

"I think the SEC states are all really different," Corker said. But he's also said that the writing may very well be on the wall after Tuesday.  

Georgia, like Tennessee, requires candidates to get at least 20 percent of the vote to be awarded delegates. And Cruz and Rubio must do what they can to ensure they don't get locked out.  

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgian who has endorsed Rubio, remained skeptical about Trump's base of support, even after his victories in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.  

"Most of the people I talk to say they like Trump. They think he's brought a lot to the table, taking some of the white elephants out of the room," Westmoreland said in an interview last week. "But, they say they just couldn't vote for him."  

Even so, recent polls show Trump ahead in Georgia and Tennessee and throughout most of the Super Tuesday states.  

Like Rubio, Westmoreland doubted that Trump would ultimately emerge with enough delegates.  

"I think it's got to winnow pretty quickly, although I'm not sure that Mr. Trump can get the 1,237 that (he) needs, and then it will — you know — just get to an ugly situation," Westmoreland said. "So I hope that doesn't occur."  

Ugly situation, indeed. More like a street fight. A contested convention with Trump feeling cheated out of the nomination could damage the party more than it could recover from by November.  

The SEC Primary was supposed to be "Cruz country," serving as a firewall of sorts for the Republican appealing to evangelical voters. Cruz envisioned racking up delegates in what he has described as a race with two lanes: himself and a more moderate candidate. But that assumption didn't count on Trump remaining a viable candidate this long, let alone this dominant.  

Now Cruz will be home in Texas on the eve of the primary. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll out Sunday found Cruz well ahead of Trump in Texas. But Cruz must ensure Trump doesn't take too may votes there, also mindful of an important 50 percent threshold for Texas' 47 at-large delegates being awarded winner-take-all. Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who polls in single digits in most of Tuesday's states and is looking for a win in the next contests in Ohio and neighboring Illinois and Michigan.  

"I would imagine if Kasich stays ahead in Ohio, he'll stay in, and I guess Marco has got the same decision he's got to think about in Florida, just like Cruz has in Texas," Westmoreland said.


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