He came. He saw. And by the end of the night, in the land of Caesar’s Palace, The Donald had conquered.
Now, after Donald Trump thumped his nearest rivals by 20 points Tuesday in the Nevada caucuses, the billionaire turns his eyes toward a bigger prize: next week’s 11-state Super Tuesday. The nomination fight’s first big delegate prize offers a golden opportunity for the GOP front-runner, riding the momentum of three wins in a row, to grow his early lead – and sow further doubt among a panicked Republican establishment that no one can stop him.
Trump has not yet secured the Republican nomination, especially given that a vast majority of delegates have yet to be awarded. But, in the early going, he has already outperformed past nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney, and a late movement to defeat him would be unprecedented in the modern era of the GOP presidential primary.
“What's so daunting about the challenge of beating Trump now is that his opponents no longer have the luxury of taking him on in just one state,” said Kevin Madden, a veteran GOP strategist. “This is now more like a national race and the momentum that Trump has is a huge advantage at this stage.”
The Republican most likely to lead a belated push to knock Trump out of the race, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, finished a distant second Tuesday. He bested Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who finished a disappointing third place. Ben Carson came in fourth, ahead of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Ohio-based GOP consultant Bob Kish said Trump's win in Nevada showed he can win everywhere.
"Trump's win tonight proves he can win in the Midwest (Iowa was a essentially a tie), the Northeast, the South and West."
The victory for Trump, who led in every poll in Nevada, was not unexpected. But the size of his victory was a difficult pill to swallow for Rubio, who has come in second place in back-to-back contests but has still yet to win a single state. The loss, as it did in South Carolina, came despite support from most Republican leaders in Nevada, including Sen. Dean Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval.
The Rubio campaign clearly did not expect a win Tuesday: The candidate wasn’t even in Nevada when the results were tallied, forgoing a traditional post-results speech. But the loss will raise fresh doubts that the first-term lawmaker can consolidate a coalition of center-right and mainstream-oriented voters in time to prevent Trump from winning a majority of delegates.
"Rubio has a very small window to make a move," Kish said. " He has two weeks to show momentum or he's done."
For Cruz, a third-place finish in a favorable state will kick-start arguments that the winner of the Iowa caucuses should exit the race – a criticism that will intensify significantly if he can’t win his home state of Texas on March 1.
"Cruz's failure to win in South Carolina means he cannot attract sufficient evangelicals to win and the establishment Republicans won't back him." Kish said. " He has no path to victory."
The results in Nevada underscore the importance of Thursday’s Republican debate, the last major event before Super Tuesday. In a race marked by most candidates’ unwillingness to take on Trump, it’s a chance – maybe the last – to tear into the primary’s front-runner before he builds an insurmountable delegate lead.
"The Nevada results make the stakes for the upcoming debate unbelievably high,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former Cruz aide. “It may be one of the last big chances to change the dynamics of this race.”
-- Eric Garcia, Simone Pathé and Eli Yokley contributed to this report.
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