John Kasich won Ohio, Marco Rubio suspended his campaign, and Ted Cruz put forth strong showings in a pair of big states.
And yet, when the smoke cleared after Tuesday’s five-state brawl, Republicans still didn’t have an answer to the GOP presidential primary’s biggest question: Can anyone stop Donald Trump?
The Republican front-runner earned a huge win in the day’s biggest delegate prize, winning all of Florida’s 99 delegates, before scoring additional big victories in the Illinois and North Carolina primaries. The victories mean he will increase his already comfortable lead in the delegate race -- and stoke further concern among anti-Trump Republicans that his campaign is on an unstoppable march to secure the Republican nomination.
In a rare moment of magnanimity for the usually bombastic candidate, he even praised his rival Rubio after he announced his campaign suspension.
"He's tough, he's smart, and he's got a great future," Trump said.
Republicans who oppose Trump can take heart that he lost in Ohio, which instead gave favorite son Kasich his first victory of the primary. Before Tuesday, dual victories in Ohio and Florida were seen as a sign that Trump’s path to a majority of delegates was inevitable.
But the Buckeye State race had a unique dynamic: Not only was Kasich the sitting governor, but Rubio urged his own supporters to back his ostensible rival in an attempt to block Trump from victory.
It’s debatable whether that’s a replicable formula in other states. But Republican strategists who oppose Trump argued that the race’s consolidation into a three-man battle gives GOP voters an opportunity to unify against Trump, denying him a path to the 1,237 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination.
“We have always believed that the fewer candidates in the race the tougher it is for Trump to win,” said Katie Packer, who is running the anti-Trump Super PAC Our Principles PAC. “He has consistently underperformed in a multi candidate field. And it's going to get harder and harder for him to get a majority of delegates as the days go on.
In one potentially key development, Kasich, who has shied away from criticizing Trump, signaled during his victory speech Tuesday that he plans to start going after his front-running rival.
“I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land,” Kasich said.
Rubio had not declared that Florida was a must-win state, but his huge loss there Tuesday was clearly a death knell for his presidential ambition whether he suspended his campaign or not.
“It is clear that while we are on the right side, this year, we will not be on the winning side,” Rubio said.
Heading into Tuesday, Trump led the delegate count at 460, ahead of second-place Ted Cruz, who had 370 delegates. Rubio and Kasich were third and fourth, respectively.
By late Tuesday, the Associated Press also projected Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic primaries in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina over Sen. Bernard Sanders, padding her already large delegate lead. The wins in three large states will bolster her argument that the Democratic race for president is effectively over, and Sanders should begin winding down his campaign to let her prepare for the general election.
The AP had not yet projected the winner of the Illinois primary in the Democratic primary, though Clinton held a small edge with more than 50 percent of the vote counted.
The AP had not yet called the winner of the Missouri primary in either party. Sander and Clinton on the Democratic side and Trump and Cruz on the Republican side were locked in neck-and-neck battles there with nearly half the vote counted.
Barring a string of unforeseen upsets, Republicans will still face the tall task after Tuesday of preventing Trump from winning a delegate majority – especially since they are still divided about the best strategy to use.
Cruz and his supporters, for instance, will urge the rest of the GOP to rally behind his candidacy. But other Republicans will argue that Kasich should stay in the race, convinced that the duo can assist the Texas senator in denying Trump a majority of delegates. Under that game plan, anti-Trump Republicans would instead win what is a sure-to-be-wild floor fight at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.
But even that part is complicated: Should it come to a floor fight, Kasich’s supporters would likely argue that the anti-Trump delegates should unify behind their respective candidacies – a tendentious argument given that Cruz would likely have more delegates.
Republican strategists don’t expect to have much clarity, even after Tuesday’s results.
“We say that every four days, we say there would be more clarity,” said one GOP strategist, who isn’t authorized to speak on the record. “But not really, there’s not a whole lot more. You’re still stuck with the same problem.”
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