PAHRUMP, Nev. — At his first event in a three-day sprint to the Republican presidential caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) told reporters what they might have missed on TV. He repeated his message, that South Carolina gave him a "tie for second place," then recalled what Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who finished 1,000 votes ahead -- just told ABC News's George Stephanopoulos.
"He was asked: 'What state can you win?' " Cruz said before addressing a crowd of several hundred voters outside a sports bar. "'You weren't able to win in Iowa. You weren't able to win in New Hampshire. You weren't able to win in South Carolina. When can you win a state?' And the answer he gave was Florida on March 15. Now, that's a fairly amazing admission that they know they're not going to win here in Nevada. Apparently, they don't believe they're going to win any states on Super Tuesday."
Cruz was paraphrasing; this wasn't quite what Rubio had said. He insisted he was running a "national campaign," and noted that "come March 15, if you win a state you get all of their delegates, that's when it's really going to start to matter." He did not say he would rack up losses until Florida's primary.
Yet in Nevada, there is less of a horse race underway and more of an argument about whose finish behind Donald Trump will be more impressive. Both Rubio and Cruz have organized in the state, opened offices and hired staff members. Yet neither candidate was talking about a Nevada win.
Cruz, stumping in a county that had delivered a landslide 2012 win for Ron Paul, would say only that he needed to "do well here." Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a Rubio endorser, crashed the rally to talk to reporters -- and insisted that Rubio would do himself good if he finished in the top three.
"He just needs to keep finishing in the top tier, or the top three, however you want to say it," Chaffetz explained. "What's different about this race this year is that there are more people still in it. It's shorter, but it's also more proportional."
That was a relatively new message for the campaign. In May, campaign strategists called Nevada a firewall, a place where Rubio could put a win on the board if he struggled in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. As recently as December, National Review said Nevada revealed the Rubio "grassroots campaign that's missing elsewhere." Rubio lived in the state as a child, and he had briefly been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, strong among Nevada Republicans.
Yet on Sunday afternoon, Chaffetz found every possible escape hatch to avoid saying Rubio could win.
"I wouldn't trade places with anyone," he said.
Was he talking about Nevada?
"Overall," Chaffetz said. "With the race, I really wouldn't. Remember, Donald Trump got less than a third of the vote in South Carolina. No doubt, a solid first-place victory, and he got all the delegates, which is what you want. But I think the conservatives will consolidate over time."
That sort of electoral three-card monte frustrates the Cruz campaign. "Third place is first place, second place is first place," joked Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho), who endorsed Cruz after Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) quit the race. "Everything except first place is first place!"
But Labrador was not talking about a first place for Cruz. The Texan's speech in the parking lot of Draft Picks was lacking some of the ammo he'd fired at Trump in South Carolina. He promised that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act without any mention of Trump, who had flubbed in a CNN interview and said "I like the mandate," taking a full day to explain that he was not talking about the ACA's mandate.
During the event, Cruz criticized Trump only twice. At his news conference, he reiterated his promise, from a TV ad now airing, to return control of most federal land to the state of Nevada.
"There's an issue on which Donald Trump and I disagree," Cruz said. "He's said the federal government should continue to own that land. I say we should trust the people of Nevada."
And from the truck bed where he addressed several hundred voters, Cruz invoked Trump again after a loud but mostly unintelligible heckler was pulled away by police.
"Gosh, who would say 'Liar, liar?' " Cruz joked. "I can't imagine anyone saying that. It's a sign that they don't want to talk about the substance, they don't want to talk about their ideas, they don't want to talk about their records."