WELCOME TO THE GOP MELTDOWN. Anti-Trump members of the Republican establishment woke up this morning to the realization that they might not be living through the end of the beginning, but the beginning of the end.

Short of sweeping every last race, last night could not have gone much better for Donald Trump. Ted Cruz -- who reportedly considered dropping out if he lost his home state last night -- won in his own backyard (Texas and Oklahoma), and Alaska, keeping his campaign alive; but he won nowhere else, leaving it without much in the way of momentum. Marco Rubio won a caucus state, gaining no ground but muddying the two-man race argument that had led Lindsey Graham -- who joked a few days ago about killing Cruz on the Senate floor -- to say the time might have arrived to support the Texas senator's White House bid.

Today, Ben Carson revealed he'd be leaving the campaign trail -- but he was still in the race last night, and may or may not have been the difference in a number of contests Trump won by 5 points or fewer (in Virginia, for instance, a majority of GOP voters told exit pollsters they would be "dissatisfied" if Trump were the Republican nominee. A majority of the state's voters backed someone besides Donald Trump. He won anyway.) So was John Kasich, who posted surprisingly strong showings in several states -- but was generally a distant third or fourth.

Looking ahead, Cruz and Rubio are both pointing to their wins as evidence they can beat Trump, and urging each other to drop out.

It may be too late for a consolidation candidate to pose a threat to Trump -- but thanks to last night, that's something the mogul may not need to worry about for some time.

Convention fight advocates (and opponents) are growing increasingly vocal -- especially in light of an AP report today that Trump isn't yet on pace to have the nomination entirely sewn up by the time the GOP meets in Cleveland this summer. But for anti-Trump forces, the odds are longer than they've ever been -- and the timeframe shorter: The consensus, as Dan Balz writes, is that the Republican establishment has two weeks left to take down Donald Trump.

Of course, the emergence of a consensus consolidation candidate during that time seems vanishingly unlikely right now: Cruz has beaten Trump in more states than any other contender -- he won't be the first to step aside. Rubio may be trailing in Florida, and Kasich battling Trump for the lead in Ohio, but neither will want to exit before their home states hold winner-take-all primaries March 15.

So the main hope for Trump foes is that Rubio mounts a massive Florida comeback, and Kasich holds on to a slim Ohio edge -- denying Trump any delegates from two of the biggest prizes in the race, no matter how close a second place showing he might post in either race two weeks from now. That wouldn't be enough to beat him -- all it would do is (possibly) deny Trump a nomination on the first ballot, unleashing the mother of all convention floor fights and potentially fracturing the party irrevocably. (Here's how they might get there -- and here's why it would likely work out roughly as well as the consolidation theory, which is to say: not work at all.)

It's the doomsday scenario -- and, as of right now, their best option.

Or maybe not, says a former Obama adviser (who knows something about delegate battles):

He gained ground last night. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Still, some insist it's not over. It'll never be over -- they argue that Trump can still be stopped, as the #NeverTrump caucus continues to grow; today, his state's primary (which Trump won) now in the rearview mirror, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker hopped on board. Some neocons vowed they would never support Trump, with a few saying they might even vote for Hillary Clinton instead.

THE PREDOMINANT ESTABLISHMENT REACTION TODAY: Resistance is futile. GOP super-lawyer Ben Ginsberg is saying that on the off chance a convention end-run isn't impossible, it's a lose-lose scenario. Strategist Alex Castellanos -- who spent much of the early primary season desperately trying to recruit supporters for an anti-Trump push -- is now saying the time has come to rally around the front-runner.

And Rupert Murdoch -- whose network has spent half the primary season feuding with Trump -- said on Twitter that the front-runner was "reaching out to make peace with Republican 'establishment.' If he becomes inevitable party would be mad not to unify."

The latest anti-Trump spot from Our Principles PAC again hammers on the Trump University controversy. (VIDEO)

And a $1.5 million TV/digital ad buy from Club for Growth goes after the Trump business record with a chyron for the ages. (VIDEO)



For Rubio, it's Florida or bust. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Can Marco Rubio's home state save him?

"Bruised by a string of Super Tuesday losses, Marco Rubio is desperately fighting to win the Florida Republican primary in two weeks to save both his presidential campaign and his political future," report Ed O' Keefe and Jose A. DelReal.

Florida and its 99 delegates are Rubio’s last best hope to at least slow Trump’s path to the nomination by accumulating delegates that would otherwise go to the front-runner. Given his big lead here, Trump can afford to lose Florida on March 15 — but he’s clearly eager to humiliate Rubio on his home turf.

The billionaire businessman is already ahead by a double-digit margin in Florida, leading 44 percent to 28 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Republican primary voters released last week. 

Notably: Jeb Bush has yet to weigh in.

GOOD NEWS FOR THE WHOLE GOP FIELD? It may or may not be a fall indicator -- it hasn't necessarily been one in the past -- but GOP primary turnout continues to soar as Democratic turnout drops. Here are the most recent turnout estimates, based on available data, via Edison Research:



Two hours after Ben carson's campaign sent out a list of surrogates available to discuss his 2016 "path forward," the candidate himself revealed that he didn't see any. Carson didn't formally suspend his campaign -- yet -- but canceled his appearance at tomorrow night's GOP debate in Michigan, and said he'd give a speech Friday at CPAC discussing his post-campaign political future. There were reports that he was to be approached ahead of his exit about a possible Florida Senate campaign, though his advisers were publicly dismissing the rumors.

The former neurosurgeon didn't have a great deal of support left (hence the exit.) But where could his voters go

Per recent polling, the top likely beneficiary -- despite their public break over Iowa election night rumors by Cruz campaign staffers that Carson might be dropping out -- is Cruz. A close second (effectively tied): Trump.

Not a winner after all. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Speaking of exits, a #GILMENTUM update: Last night, there was an unlikely postscript to the underdog presidential campaign of former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who exited the race nearly a month ago. Early returns in the Boston suburb of Chelsea awarded him an unlikely win, with more than 47 percent of the vote.

The total turned out to be slightly inaccurate, due to computer error. Gilmore's actual vote total: two (as in two votes, not 2 percent.) The real winner in Chelsea turned out to be Donald Trump, with around 60 percent of the vote.

Still, for a few hours, Jim Gilmore was a winner. They took away his votes -- but they can't take that moment.

THE #SAVECHRISCHRISTIE MEME: Nearly a full day later, it's still a thing. And it is not only producing a wealth of multimedia offerings -- there's this epic analysis from Alexandra Petri, replete with an Ellison reference in the kicker:

Someone just told Chris Christie that there is no God. Or Chris Christie has just discovered that God does exist but She is an enormous snake who hates or is indifferent to mankind. Or Chris Christie has just discovered that there is no God but that Hell is real.

“When are they coming to airlift me out?” Chris Christie’s eyes are pleading. “Please tell me that they are coming and that it is soon.” But then his expression hardens. Chris Christie knows that they are not coming back for him.

This is his life now.

Some are already over it.

But enough about what Chris Christie was thinking. The real question is still: what was he thinking? As home state newspapers call for his resignation and his approval rating drops again in the wake of his Trump endorsement, we know what the downside is. What did he really stand to gain? Chris Cillizza reached out to Christie backers for an answer. Here are the top three theories: 

1) He likes Trump. "Christie's thinking went something like this, according to his allies: Trump is going to be the nominee. I know him better than I know any of these other people and I like him. I'd like to be in politics in the future. So why not?"

2) He hates Rubio. "The other suggestion to explain Christie's behavior is that he remains embittered about the attacks he endured at the hands of Rubio's super PAC in New Hampshire and is looking for a measure of revenge."

3) He just wants to stay in the game. "Maybe it's even simpler than that. 'He needed to be relevant,' said a Christie loyalist."


Last night, Hillary Clinton (like Trump) won 7 of 11 states, and expanded her delegate lead. Today, top Bernie Sanders strategists sought to make the case that the Vermont senator still has a path to the Democratic nomination, report John Wagner and Anne Gearan. That path winds through the industrial Midwestern states and other delegate-rich targets such as New York and California.

In other words, both campaigns claim that the math and the calendar work in their favor as the Democratic nominating contest moves ahead.

The pitches:

--Sanders strategist Tad Devine argues that the demographics of Tuesday’s contests -- which included half a dozen Southern states with sizable African American populations -- were more favorable to Clinton than any other day on the nominating calendar going forward, and that his team has mapped out a scenario (which he did not share) in which Sanders can overtake Clinton in pledged delegates ahead of Democratic convention in July.

--Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook argues that the clock has already just about run out for Sanders. Using different calculations than the AP totals, he claimed in a "state of the race" memo that Clinton's lead was already "larger than any lead then-Senator Obama had at any point in the 2008 primary. We anticipate building on this lead even further making it increasingly difficult and eventually mathematically impossible for Sen. Sanders to catch up."

The first Sanders post-Super Tuesday message, on the trail in Maine today: a swipe at Clinton’s support from "weirdo billionaires." Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton held a New York event with an estimated crowd of 5,000 -- far smaller than many Sanders rallies, but among her biggest of the cycle to date. There are 247 delegates at stake in New York's April 19 primary.


TRAIL MIX: No Republican nominee has ever won all of the different states Donald Trump has. 

--Sanders supporter Mudcat Saunders on Trump-Clinton: "He could beat her like a tied-up billy goat." 

--Tomorrow, Mitt Romney is scheduled to talk 2016 in a speech at the University of Utah.

--Looking ahead: Any Trump-Clinton matchup promises to be nasty, brutish and long, writes Dan Balz.

--This is the sort of headline a campaign generally tries to avoid: "Trump Son Says He Didn’t Mean to Speak to Pro-Slavery Radio Host" (a good campaign -- and life -- rule of thumb: Any activity that literally involves the word "cesspool" is usually pretty...messy.)

--Everyone in the GOP field had a bad night, says Dave Weigel; either they can't make progress, or they can't close the deal.

--The Onion: "GOP Statisticians Develop New Branch Of Math To Formulate Scenarios In Which Trump Doesn’t Win Nomination"

--In more reality-based #math news: According to a new poll, Trump holds a 10-point lead in Michigan's Mar. 8 primary.

--More on the Carson exit: "The fruit salad of our lives will be missing a peach."


YOUR DAILY TRAIL PIT STOP: The Bad Lip Reading Crew takes on Ted Cruz. (VIDEO)

BONUS PIT STOP: A companion to last week's montage of Democrats reacting to the words "President Donald Trump" \-- here are Republicans reacting to the words "President Hillary Clinton," via IJ. (VIDEO)