Who is the true alternative to Trump? Cruz, Rubio battle it out
With about 70 percent of Republicans in national polls declining to back Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marcio Rubio have tried to cast themselves as the candidate around whom the "alternative-to-Donald-Trump vote" can coalesce.
Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz battled to emerge as the true anti-Trump on Sunday as the billionaire businessman took an ever-so-brief break from his trademark braggadocio to say his drive for the GOP nomination isn't unstoppable – yet.
Fresh off a commanding victory in South Carolina, Donald Trump declined to say the nomination was his to lose. But he quickly went on to declare, "I'm really on my way." Soon enough, in a television interview, he was toting up electoral math all the way through Election Day and concluding, "I'm going to win."
The candidates' diverging flight plans demonstrated how the campaign spreads out and speeds up now. Nevada's GOP caucuses are Tuesday, and then a dozen states vote in the March 1 Super Tuesday bonanza.
Senator Cruz headed for Nevada and Mr. Trump for Georgia. Senator Rubio embarked on a Tennessee-Arkansas-Nevada trifecta.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton savored her weekend win in the Nevada caucuses as Bernie Sanders acknowledged that while his insurgent campaign has made strides, "at the end of the day ... you need delegates." He looked past Tuesday's Democratic primary in South Carolina to list Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Oklahoma as places where he has a "good shot" to do well.
Rubio and Cruz used the Sunday morning news shows to spin rosy-road-forward scenarios after complete but unofficial returns in South Carolina put Trump way up top, with Rubio squeaking past Cruz for second. But with roughly 70 percent of Republicans in national polls declining to back Trump, Cruz and Rubio tried to cast themselves as the one candidate around whom what Rubio calls the "alternative-to-Donald-Trump vote" can coalesce.
Rubio also took an aggressive run at Trump, faulting him for a lack of specifics on policy.
"If you're running for president of the United States, you can't just tell people you're going to make America great again," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Cruz stressed his conservative bona fides and said he was the lone "strong conservative in this race who can win. We see conservatives continuing to unite behind our campaign," he told NBC's "Meet the Press."
With Jeb Bush gone from the race, Rubio was hoping to pick off past donors to the Bush campaign and looking to benefit as well from a cessation in the millions of dollars in negative ads run by the Bush campaign and its allies.
Rubio also suggested it was only a matter of time before Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson folded as well. He hinted it would be better to get that winnowing over with, saying, "the sooner we can coalesce, the better we're going to be as a party in general."
"It's going to happen one way or another," he said.
Not so fast, Governor Kasich countered. "We're getting big crowds everywhere we go," he insisted, listing Vermont, Massachusetts, and Virginia as places he can shine.
Cruz tried to brush right past his apparent third-place finish in South Carolina and instead hark back to his victory over Trump in leadoff Iowa.
"It is now apparent that the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump and that has beaten Donald Trump is our campaign," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."
The Texas senator said his path to victory calls for a strong showing on Super Tuesday, and that Texas was "clearly the crown jewel" of that day.
Rubio, a Florida senator, said he was looking for a big delegate take in the five-state round of voting on March 15, which includes his home state. He noted that round offers victors a "winner-take-all" share of delegates rather a proportional share.
With Mr. Bush out of the race, Trump suddenly had nice things to say about the candidate he had hammered so relentlessly when they were rivals. He said of the former Florida governor: "I like him. He's a good person. He's a good man."
Asked about his competition with Rubio, Trump told "Fox News Sunday" that "I start off liking everybody. Then, all of a sudden, they become mortal enemies."
As for whether he can tone things down after his multiple brawls in recent days in which he's taken on everyone from Pope Francis to former President George W. Bush, Trump told Fox: "I can act as presidential as anybody that's ever been president – other than the great Abraham Lincoln. I thought he was hard to beat."
Ms. Clinton was happy with her Nevada win but acknowledged she has work to do in persuading voters that she has their best interests at heart.
"I think there's an underlying question that maybe is really in the back of people's minds and that is, you know, is she in it for us or is she in it for herself?" Clinton said on CNN. "I think that is a question that people are trying to sort through."
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.