Donald Trump walloped Marco Rubio in the first-term senator’s home state of Florida on Tuesday, forcing him from the Republican presidential race, and swept to victory in at least two other primaries as the nominating contest narrowed to a three-person brawl.
But Trump’s triumph — he also notched decisive wins in Illinois and North Carolina — was offset by a loss in Ohio to that state’s governor, John Kasich, who beat back a fierce challenge from the billionaire mogul in the key Midwestern battleground. In Missouri, meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was locked in a dead heat with Trump.
Cruz used his national grass-roots network to try unsuccessfully to surgically cut into Trump’s lead in the delegate count. By night’s end the two appeared on track — perhaps with Kasich — for a protracted fight that could go all the way to the party’s convention in Cleveland in July.
Trump seduced hundreds of thousands of Republican voters — and, in Florida, more than 1 million — with his swaggering populism, hard-line immigration views and outsider appeal. His commanding night was capped by a stunning blowout in Florida, a state whose large and diverse population makes it one of the biggest prizes in American politics.
At the same time, however, his loss to Kasich in Ohio undermined Trump’s strength in a Rust Belt state that he had boasted he could win easily in the general election.
Claiming victory from his ornate, Versailles-style private club in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump sought to brush aside the controversies that have engulfed his campaign. He vowed to unite the GOP and related positive conversations he has had in recent days with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
“We have to bring our party together — we have to bring it together,” Trump said. “We have something happening that actually makes the Republican Party probably the biggest political story anywhere in the world.”
The feud between Trump and Rubio had grown particularly nasty, but Trump tried to be magnanimous in his remarks Tuesday night. “He’s tough, he’s smart, and he’s got a great future,” Trump said of his now-
About an hour earlier, Rubio addressed supporters at the Miami university where he has taught and sounded a wistful note in announcing that he was ending his campaign. His wife, Jeanette, and their four children stood to his side stone-faced.
“After tonight, it is clear that while we are on the right side, this year we will not be on the winning side,” Rubio said. “While it is not God’s plan that I be president in 2016 — or maybe ever — and today my campaign is suspended, the fact that I’ve even come this far is evidence of how truly special America is.”
Cruz commended Rubio for a campaign that he said inspired Americans and said he welcomes Rubio’s backers “with open arms.”
“Only two campaigns have a plausible path to the nomination: ours and Donald Trump’s,” Cruz told supporters Tuesday night in Houston. “Nobody else has any mathematical possibility whatsoever.”
In Ohio, Kasich tried to prove otherwise. He campaigned as if he were facing reelection as governor, touting the state’s recovery and visiting businesses that were created or expanded since he took office in 2011.
In contrast with Rubio and Cruz, Kasich sounded an upbeat message, careful to rarely mention Trump and focus instead on middle-class concerns that he thought would rally Ohioans to his cause. As daunting as his path may be, Kasich was downright jubilant Tuesday night as he seized his first win of the season.
“It’s been my intention to make you proud,” Kasich told supporters in Berea, Ohio. “We put one foot in front of the other — and I want to remind you again tonight that I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.”
Tuesday’s balloting came after weeks of intensified scrutiny of Trump, whose caustic rhetoric has alarmed party officials and inspired a last-ditch effort by 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a group of well-funded super PACs to somehow halt the New York billionaire’s march to the nomination.
Trump’s massive rallies have become settings for disorder between his fans and liberal protesters. Bloody scenes from outside his canceled event Friday night in Chicago gave his campaign a darker image, and the other candidates have condemned Trump, accusing him of enabling and instigating violence with his incendiary statements.
Trump also has drawn unwanted attention over the actions of his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who has been accused of manhandling a female reporter. Lewandowski has denied the allegations. At his Palm Beach news conference Tuesday night, Trump was flanked on his right by Lewandowski and, in a signal of support, said, “Good job, Corey.”
The controversies did not weaken Trump’s appeal. He defiantly dismissed the headlines as political correctness and withstood a barrage of negative advertising in Florida to clobber Rubio at the polls.
It was a poetic bookend for Rubio’s candidacy, which was built on a premise of electability but wilted under the heat of mounting losses in the early contests. A race once imagined to evolve into a Sunshine State showdown between two Floridians — the Cuban American senator and former governor Jeb Bush, his onetime mentor — now moves on without either.
Once touted on the cover of Time as “The Republican Savior,” Rubio had an aspirational message of generational change and American renewal coupled with orthodox conservative policies. But the career politician could not find enough support within a grass-roots base riven by anger and hungry for an outsider to dismantle the political system.
In his farewell speech, Rubio attributed his downfall to what he called a “tsunami” fueled by people feeling left behind by the economic recovery and ignored by the political class. He also warned that the “politics of resentment” represented by Trump will fracture not only the Republican Party but also the entire nation.
“America’s in the middle of a real political storm — a real tsunami — and we should have seen this coming,” Rubio said. “People are angry, and people are very frustrated. . . . While this may not have been the year for a hopeful and optimistic message about our future, I still remain hopeful and optimistic about our future as Americans.”
Rubio was unable to escape his support for a 2013 effort at immigration reform, which many conservatives believed was too lenient on undocumented immigrants. Nor was he able to escape Trump, who hectored him as “Little Marco,” a “choke artist” and a tool of big donors.
Rubio eventually fired back, trying to fight on Trump’s level with insults about the front-runner’s tan and the size of his hands. He also called Trump a “con artist” for his involvement in Trump University, which many students said defrauded them. But Rubio undercut his own message by maintaining that he would still vote for Trump if he became the Republican nominee.
In Florida, Rubio was buoyed over the past two weeks by an aggressive advertising blitz savaging Trump’s business career and character. A handful of super PACs and other independent groups had spent $15.7 million as of Monday on anti-Trump ads in Florida — plus an additional $5.3 million in Illinois, $1.35 million in Ohio and $1.24 million in Missouri, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
But the ads began long after Trump had solidified his standing as the national front-runner. Trump called the ads “vicious” and “horrible” and recalled that when he saw anti-Trump commercials airing during a broadcast of a golf tournament from his own club, he tried to distract attendees at the tournament from watching.
The candidates are in an elaborate race to accumulate convention delegates — with a majority, or 1,237, required to secure the nomination. If nobody wins an outright majority by the end of the primaries and caucuses in June, it would force a contested convention in July.Eyeing a possible contested convention, Cruz relied on surgical targeting in three states where 193 delegates were up for grabs — Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina — and where some delegates were allocated to the winners of each congressional district, enabling him to possibly pick up support even if he did not win statewide.
Trump scored an early win Tuesday morning, overwhelming the tiny vote in a caucus held in the Northern Mariana Islands, according to the Republican Party in the U.S. territory.
The win earned Trump nine delegates, a relative pittance, but one that made him the first candidate to meet an important threshold in the party’s nominating process.
According to arcane party rules, which are subject to change, candidates must have been awarded a majority of delegates in at least eight states or territories to be formally considered at the national convention in July. The Northern Mariana Islands gave Trump his eighth majority delegate haul of the season.
David A. Fahrenthold, Rosalind S. Helderman, Scott Clement and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.