Sen. Ted Cruz’s bid to become the chief alternative to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump gained steam Saturday, as he secured commanding victories in the Kansas and Maine caucuses while Sen. Marco Rubio withered with a string of third-place finishes.

The 2016 election barreled forward Saturday as five states held presidential nominating contests across the country. On a day dubbed “Super Saturday,” Republicans voted in Louisiana and caucused in Kansas, Maine and Kentucky. Democrats also voted in Louisiana and caucused in Kansas and Nebraska.

Trump won the Louisiana primary and the Kentucky caucuses, underscoring the extent to which the Republican nomination race has become a contest between him and Cruz.

Taken together, the results marked a devastating rebuke of the Republican establishment, which has settled on Rubio as its standard-bearer. He not only failed to win any states Saturday, but he also finished in third place in every state that voted Saturday except Maine, where he was projected to finish fourth behind Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump urged Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to drop out of the 2016 race after Trump won the Louisiana GOP primary and Kentucky caucuses while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) won in Maine and Kansas. (  / Reuters)

Trump called on Rubio to drop out of the race Saturday during a speech in West Palm Beach, where he mocked the senator’s recent losses.

“Marco Rubio had a very, very bad night and personally I’d call for him to drop out of the race,” Trump said. “I think it’s probably time.”

“As a party we should come together and stop this foolishness,” he added later.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders defeated former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the Kansas and Nebraska caucuses. But Clinton’s forceful win in delegate-rich Louisiana keeps her vast delegate lead for the Democratic party’s nomination intact.

Republican Party leaders have wrung their hands over the prospect of Trump winning the Republican nomination, and Cruz and Rubio have each sought to paint themselves as the only candidate who can take him down. They have accused Trump of feigning conservative values and fooling voters with promises he cannot keep.

“The scream you hear, the howl that comes from Washington, D.C., is utter terror at what we the people are doing together,” Cruz, the senator from Texas, said in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, speaking shortly after his projected victory was announced.

Trump’s detractors hope that the losses Saturday could signal a break in the populist momentum that has swept him to the top of the polls. Republican leaders fear that his bombastic personality and controversial rhetoric on Mexican immigrants and Muslims could ruin their chances of capturing the White House in the fall and damage the party brand permanently.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz told supporters that as the votes are still being counted, "the networks have called the state of Kansas for us." (   Reuters)

Cruz’s ascension comes after a week of intense criticism of the front-runner. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, called Trump a “fraud” on Thursday in a blistering speech at the University of Utah, and that night, Trump’s rivals launched similar attacks against him at a debate in Detroit.

But although Cruz’s rise could signal growing opposition to Trump’s candidacy within the party, it would be bittersweet for the party leadership. Both Cruz and Trump have run on ­anti-establishment messages and have put the party establishment in their crosshairs.

The presidential race entered a new stage Tuesday after Trump and Clinton (D) secured victories in a majority of the 11 partisan primaries and caucuses held that day, when hundreds of delegates were at stake. Clinton, the Democratic establishment favorite, has pulled sharply ahead of rival Sanders, the senator from Vermont, while Trump’s wave of populist support showed little sign of waning as he endured scathing attacks from GOP leaders.

Saturday’s contests pitch the election forward but do not fundamentally change Clinton and Trump’s dominant status; their rivals, encouraged by several victories, have merely managed to keep them at bay. Their focus now turns to a series of high-stakes, ­high-delegate races in the coming weeks.

“I don’t want to tell you that we’re 21 points up in Louisiana, because you won’t vote,” a bullish Trump quipped Friday evening during a campaign event here in New Orleans. “You have to go out and vote, so let’s assume we’re tied, okay? Let’s assume. No, you have to go out and vote.”

Cruz’s Kansas focus pays off

In the lead-up to Saturday, the Cruz campaign focused its efforts on Kansas and Maine, which both held caucuses instead of primaries that the campaign hoped would favor its ground organization. In Maine, Cruz made a direct appeal to libertarian-leaning voters, hoping to siphon off voters who once supported Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).

Trump and Cruz crossed paths at a caucus site in Wichita on Saturday morning, where each delivered abridged versions of their stump speech to potential supporters. On display was Cruz’s increasingly populist pitch, which he thinks will help blunt Trump’s appeal moving forward. He pointed to the single mothers and working-class voters he said are struggling under Obama’s policies.

“The media tells us this is as good as it gets. That is an utter lie,” Cruz said. “The heart of our economy is not Washington, D.C. The heart of our economy is not New York City. The heart of our economy is small business all across this country.”

In Kansas, Rubio stumbled to a third-place finish despite racking up endorsements from major political figures in the state, including Gov. Sam Brownback, Sen. Pat Roberts and 1996 presidential nominee and former Kansas senator Bob Dole. Rubio is looking ahead to the March 15 primary in his home state of Florida, though Trump appears to have an enormous lead in the Sunshine State. The Rubio campaign has remained steadfast in its belief that the senator can turn things around; a loss there would be devastating for Rubio and would give Trump all of the state’s delegates, which will be allocated on a winner-take-all basis.

Rubio spent Saturday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., where he delivered an impassioned speech and was received warmly by the audience. He made a passing dig at Trump, whom he has repeatedly accused of being a false conservative and a “con man” on the campaign trail.

“Young Americans have a chance to fulfill an incredible potential,” he said at the end of his address. “But we have to give them a chance. And they won’t have a chance if a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is elected. And they won’t have a chance if the conservative movement is hijacked by someone who isn’t a conservative.”

Rubio was scheduled to travel to Puerto Rico on Saturday evening, where voters are poised to give him a second primary win this cycle on Sunday. Victory in Puerto Rico could give him a boost in Florida, where a significant bloc of Puerto Ricans have relocated amid ongoing economic turmoil on the island.

Trump spent the afternoon in the Sunshine State, where he ripped apart “little Marco Rubio” and pitched himself to the crowd as the only Republican candidate who can beat Clinton. Trump said he hoped to win Kansas and Kentucky on Saturday, and he urged the Orlando crowd to vote for him in the March 15 GOP primary. At one point, Trump asked everyone in the audience to raise their right hands and swear to vote, trying their best to repeat a lengthy and at times rambling pledge.

“If we win Florida, it’s over,” Trump said. “If we win Florida and Ohio, it’s really over.”

Tracking the race to the Republican nomination
Democratic race

In the Democratic contest, Sanders will probably continue facing down questions about how much longer he can realistically stay in the race with Clinton’s prohibitive delegate lead; she went into Saturday’s contests with 1,066, including superdelegates, to his 432.

In an interview, Sanders said he was heartened that he appears to have won with big turnouts in Kansas and Nebraska and that he feels confident about the Maine caucus on Sunday.

“We’re feeling great,” Sanders said. “When I talk about a political revolution, with these kind of turnouts, I think we’re beginning to see that.”

Speaking to Michigan Democrats in Detroit, Clinton congratulated Sanders on “running a strong campaign” but said she is pleased to add to the overall delegate count.

Sanders has spent roughly double what Clinton has on advertising in Nebraska. Clinton went to Omaha to collect the endorsement of Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett but did not spent significant time campaigning there.

At a rally in Portland, Maine, last week, Sanders reminded the crowd how far he had come.

“We were up against the candidate supported by the entire political establishment, someone who had been anointed by the pundits,” he said. “Well, guess what? It doesn’t look like she’s so inevitable now.”

Anne Gearan in Detroit, Jenna Johnson in Orlando, John Wagner in Raleigh, and Emily Guskin, Katie Zezima and Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.