THE MORNING PLUM:

A lot of pundits — and antsy Republicans — keep suggesting that there is a “ceiling” to Donald Trump’s support, meaning that he will be contained eventually. The problem is that this “ceiling” may be as high as the support of his two leading rivals — combined.

That, at least, is what happened last night in Nevada, stunning the political world. Trump won 45.9 percent of the vote, while Marco Rubio came in a distant second with 23.9 percent and Ted Cruz earned 21.4 percent.

The entrance polls suggest that Trump won among a whole lot of voter groups that he isn’t “supposed to” be winning and indeed are “supposed to” be ripe for Rubio’s picking:

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— Trump beat Rubio by nine points among voters aged 17-44 (though Rubio won among the more narrow 17-29 group).

— Trump beat Rubio not only among blue collar voters (Trump’s base) but also beat him by double digits among college graduates.

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— Trump beat Rubio among Latinos and nonwhites overall.

— Trump beat Rubio by more than 25 points among moderates and independents alike.

None of this is conclusive of anything, and it is all subject to change, particularly since we’re heading for a diverse group of contests in many, many states. But it does seem clear that Trump’s appeal may be proving broader than a lot of Republicans had predicted, perhaps casting doubt on Rubio’s hopes of slowing Trump’s momentum in some of the big states that vote in March.

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On ABC News this morning, Rubio was asked whether he will now go harder at Trump. Rubio’s answer:

“I know there’s this craving in the media for people to attack each other….I’ve pointed out the things that Donald is for that I don’t agree with. But we’ll have a debate tomorrow night, and if there are policy differences, we’re gonna talk about those. If he says something I don’t agree with — like he did in the last debate, about George Bush being responsible for 9/11 — I’m gonna correct him on it.”

Friendly reminder: After Rubio “corrected” Trump’s views about George W. Bush and 9/11 during the last debate, Trump went on to beat Rubio in Bush-friendly South Carolina by 10 points.

Rubio’s apparent tentativeness about going hard at Trump seems to be strategic. As Byron York reports, the belief among Republicans who want to stop Trump is that the competition over who will be the single anti-Trump candidate left standing (most likely Rubio) must be resolved first:

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The theory is that Rubio will consolidate his vanquished rivals’ support while Trump bumps up against a “ceiling,” that is, the prohibitively large number of voters who find him unacceptable and whose votes he has no chance of winning….
True to form, Rubio’s and Cruz’s first instinct upon getting shellacked by Trump was to attack each other….In a strategy that appears insane to outsiders but seems to make perfect sense to campaign strategists, Rubio and Cruz kept shooting at each other while Trump ran away with the race. It’s unclear whether the two senators will keep it up at the Republican debate in Houston Thursday, the last debate before Super Tuesday.

Of course, time is running out on this theory; there is no obvious reason why Ted Cruz would bow out before the March contests. What’s more, confidence in a Trump “ceiling,” and in Rubio’s hopes of consolidating the anti-Trump vote, seems a bit strained in light of the Nevada results. Judging by the twitters this morning, conservative and Republican-aligned observers are increasingly skeptical about this strategy’s long term prospects.

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Of course, the real problem here might be that nobody has any idea how to go after Trump in a way that might actually work.

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* RUBIO SILENT ON TRUMP’S BIG WIN: This nugget from the Post write-up of Trump’s victory is noteworthy:

Rubio, who jetted out of Nevada Tuesday morning for campaign events in Minnesota and Michigan, made no public comments on the results. His advisers had been hopeful that he might finish strongly here, perhaps even win, considering that he spent part of his childhood in Las Vegas and enjoyed the support of much of the state’s political establishment.

Rubio supporters treated his second place showings in Iowa and South Carolina as enormous victories. This time there’s no way to make the case that the Marco-Mentum is on the move.

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 * WHY TED CRUZ WILL FIGHT ON: One word: Texas. That’s Cruz’s home state. As the state’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Cruz supporter, explains:

“One thing the mainstream media hasn’t done a good job of covering is that early voting has started already. By the time the Trumpster finds Texas, half of the votes may well have been cast. If you don’t get 20 percent of the vote, you don’t qualify for delegates. Probably, the only people who get delegates out of Texas are Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.”

So Cruz has every incentive to continue to March 1st at the least.

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* DELEGATE MATH LOOKS GRIM FOR TRUMP RIVALS: Rubio and Cruz are hoping to profit from rules that award delegates proportionally in upcoming states. But Jonathan Easley delivers the bad news:

Trump will head into the proportional Super Tuesday contests on March 1 as the favorite to win a plurality of delegates. Eleven states will award delegates on Super Tuesday, when about a quarter of all outstanding delegates will be up for grabs. Trump leads in the most recent polls of eight of those 11 states. He’s also running close in the remaining three — including in Texas, where he and Cruz appear likely to split the lion’s share of the 172 delegates up for grabs.

Not looking good.

* IS BERNIE SURRENDERING IN SOUTH CAROLINA? Politico looks at Bernie Sanders’s campaign schedule and concludes he might have given up hope of winning there. His long term plan:

His campaign needs to perform well in the first half of March in order to stay competitive against Clinton….they’re now looking to Super Tuesday – where in a handful of states Sanders is ahead in the polls or is running competitively — as a means of checking her momentum….aides think as long as he can claim enough delegates between March 1 and 15 from the ones he’s now visiting, he can remain neck-and-neck with Clinton through the month.

As noted yesterday, Sanders has every incentive to try to keep this going through the convention, even if Clinton’s delegate lead begins to look insurmountable.

* NO, THE CLINTON AND PETRAEUS EMAIL STORIES ARE NOT ALIKE: Republicans love to say that the Clinton email arrangement contains offenses that are worse than anything General Petraeus did to earn criminal prosecution. Post fact checker Michelle Lee has a detailed look at the two stories, and concludes they’re not really comparable:

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“Petraeus disclosed classified information to an unauthorized person. Clinton did not. Petraeus lied to the FBI. Clinton did not. Petraeus was charged with a crime and pleaded guilty. Clinton has not been charged with a criminal offense,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Details, details…

* AND JUDICIARY CHAIR SHUNS WHITE HOUSE INVITE: The Des Moines Register reports that Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not bothered to respond to a White House invitation to discuss with President Obama his nominee to replace Antonin Scalia.

Grassley’s office says he’s considering the invitation, but other key Senators have already said they don’t see any reason to meet with the president. These Senators have already declared that Obama will be flouting the will of the people if he nominates someone, so what’s to discuss?

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