COLUMBUS, Ohio — After Sen. Ted Cruz’s wins in Maine and Kansas narrowed Donald Trump’s lead in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, their rivals had a message for the ad hoc “Never Trump” movement.
Please, guys. Don’t rally around Cruz. Look at the calendar.
“This map only gets better for us as we move forward in some of the other states,” Sen. Marco Rubio told reporters Saturday night in Puerto Rico, where on Sunday the senator from Florida picked up his second win. “We knew this would be the roughest period in the campaign given the makeup of the electoral map.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who spent Sunday campaigning in his home state, told ABC News that he’d “never worried” about the Southern primaries that had turned the primary season into a contest between Cruz and Trump. “Our strategy was always to survive and get to the north, and now we’re getting to the north,” he said.
Although Cruz insists that he can defeat Trump outright, both Rubio and Kasich argue that they can win their home states and head to a contested convention — especially if Republicans follow Mitt Romney’s advice and cast tactical votes against Trump.
Both vastly outpace Cruz in support from party elites. Both have scooped up newspaper endorsements — Trump and Cruz have scored none of them. Both are seen as more electable than the Texan, who has argued that Republicans lose with the “mushy middle” and win by nominating hard-right conservatives who excite the base.
“A lot of the folks pushing a brokered convention in Washington don’t want it to be based on the people,” Cruz told CBS News on Sunday. “They want to drop in their favorite candidate and try to stifle the will of the people.”
On Sunday, there was no evidence of an establishment scramble to Cruz. In an interview with NBC News, Romney said that “a lot of people were surprised by how well Ted Cruz did.” Yet, as he did in his much-watched Thursday speech, Romney suggested that Rubio and Kasich were the best stop-Trump candidates in the March 15 Florida and Ohio primaries.
Cruz hopes to overturn that view in three states that vote this week. He rallied on Saturday night in Idaho, a libertarian-friendly state whose governor has endorsed Kasich but whose voters are expected to break for Cruz. Of the next two states, the most promising may be Mississippi, where Cruz’s state chairman, Chris McDaniel, narrowly lost a spiteful primary runoff for U.S. Senate in 2014.
The Texan, who endorsed McDaniel, never stopped working Mississippi. Bolstered by a near-miss in Louisiana, where Cruz lost the early vote but narrowly won ballots cast on Election Day, Cruz was scheduled to speak Monday afternoon in the heart of McDaniel’s political base, at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss., but canceled due to illness late Sunday, according to McDaniel.
“They’re still very much willing to fight, and they’re very much engaged in the system,” McDaniel said. “Trump has a handful of activists as well. But most of the hard-core activists that are going to knock on doors, going to get on Facebook and stay up all night firing messages, they’re already inclined for Cruz. The energy is there. The movement is still alive.”
Social-media promotion has been especially central to the Cruz campaign in Mississippi, and McDaniel manages a Facebook page that counts more than 58,000 followers. In the run-up to the primary he has been holding Facebook town halls that have drawn thousands of participants.
“Some say he has a funny voice. OK, I get it,” McDaniel wrote in one post. “Some say he’s too polished. That’s like saying he’s too smart or too intelligent to hold office, but I understand.” But, he added, “If you believe he is part of the GOP establishment, then you are either sorely mistaken, intentionally naïve or stubbornly obtuse.”
A looming concern for Cruz is that in spite of his superior organization and his influential allies, he may not be able to overcome the way Trump’s fiery populist pitch and months-long media saturation have pulled away some McDaniel backers and attracted previously disengaged and less ideological Republican voters.
Trump has visited the state sparingly but leads by wide margins in state polls. His January rally in Biloxi drew a crowd of more than 15,000, and he will return Monday, holding a rally at Madison Central High School in the vote-rich suburbs of Jackson.
Rubio and Kasich have drawn endorsements in Mississippi, too. Henry Barbour, one of the state’s members at the Republican National Committee, is backing Rubio, as is former congressman Chip Pickering. Kasich is supported by former Senate majority leader Trent Lott and Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), a prominent Cochran ally. The state’s largest newspaper, the Clarion Ledger, also has endorsed him.
A Cruz win in Mississippi would break Trump’s streak in the Deep South. But a win in the March 8 state of Michigan would firmly establish him as the anti-Trump — and Kasich, at least, is working to stop that. The Ohio governor will spend Monday in the suburbs of Detroit, where private polling suggests that he has made gains at Trump’s expense.
“Rubio’s supporters are totally moving toward Kasich,” said John Yob, a Republican strategist who worked for the defunct campaign of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) but is now independent. “We’ve seen that in just the last 24 hours, and I think it’s a combination of strategic voting and momentum. These debates have had a big impact in state where they’ve occurred, and universally people think Kasich won the debate — or that he didn’t lose it the worst.”
Cruz, who regularly talks about “Reagan Democrats” joining his campaign, has yet to win in the sort of places where those blue-collar voters lived. Michigan would be a test of that, one that Cruz’s allies are soft-pedaling.
“We have a very good grass-roots effort but haven’t spent the dollars the others have,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan GOP chairman who is helping Cruz. “Rubio made a push over the last two weeks, but with all the negative publicity and failing campaign, I think most of that will fade.”
On Sunday, two TV network polls found Cruz jumping into second place, behind Trump. But Trump’s vote remained stable, close to 40 percent, and Cruz’s opponents argue that his support will come from the social conservative voters of western Michigan, as he tanks in the suburbs.
“Western Michigan was definitely Ben Carson country, and most of Carson’s folks went to Cruz,” said Dennis Lennox, a Michigan Republican activist who jumped from Cruz’s campaign to Trump’s last week. “But Trump is going to rack up the numbers downriver and around Detroit.”
It’s important to Kasich and Rubio that Trump win there, if they can’t. If Cruz can’t demonstrate strength, Kasich and Rubio — and Trump — will argue that he simply cannot expand beyond his wheelhouse.
“He’s not an economic populist,” said former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who is supporting Rubio. “Ted Cruz is not at all — at all — like Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee on those issues. That’s one reason I didn’t support him.”
On Sunday afternoon in Columbus, the stop-Trump-but-not-with-Cruz coalition was in full bloom. Hundreds of voters waited in sub-40-degree temperatures to watch former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger endorse Kasich. Few openly endorsed the idea of strategic votes to stop Trump.
“Romney was out of line when he said that,” argued Bill Bonnie, 69, a semi-retired businessman from Columbus.
Yet, functionally, Kasich’s voters were rallying to do what Romney had suggested. And they were pleased that their stop-Trump vote could go to a governor that seemed readier for the job than the two first-term senators who came out of the tea party movement.
“As soon as Trump started making progress, I decided to vote for Kasich,” said Ashley Peterson, 27, a stay-at-home mother from the Columbus suburb of Dublin. “It’s important to stop Trump, but it would be a lot harder to vote for someone like Cruz. He’s just too conservative.”
Costa reported from Salt Lake City.