The state may be different, but the goal is the same for Ted Cruz: Go for the silver.
As Nevada Republicans prepare to caucus Tuesday, the U.S. senator from Texas is again believed to be in a battle for the No. 2 spot with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, with billionaire Donald Trump on top. The scenario is not much different from the South Carolina primary three days ago, when Rubio narrowly beat Cruz to claim runner-up — and marked the beginning of the rockiest period of Cruz's campaign yet.
In the Silver State, Cruz and Rubio "appear to be playing for second place," said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Whether Cruz comes out on top, according to Damore and others watching the race, could come down to mobilizing rural voters — whom the Texas senator has been targeting with a land rights message — and scooping up whatever Tea Party support does not go to Trump in urban areas.
Not much has changed in Nevada since Cruz touched down there Sunday following his disappointing finish in the Palmetto State, which has fueled fresh questions about his prospects in other southern states. Perhaps the biggest development since then has been the consolidation of support behind Rubio, who in less than 24 hours collected the endorsement of three members of Congress from Nevada — two of whom had backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush before he dropped out of the presidential race.
"Most of the state’s GOP establishment is coalescing behind Rubio, but it is unlikely that he will have the time to exploit that point," Damore wrote in an email.
Election observers in Nevada caution there is still room for surprise Tuesday, citing the lack of quality polling on the GOP race there and a caucus system the state's residents are still getting used to. Some Cruz supporters in the state headed into the home stretch before the caucuses suggesting he still had a shot at overtaking Trump.
"I think it’s going to come down to honesty and integrity, and I think that people will see that Sen. Cruz is their best choice as far as someone that is consistent with their messaging," Nevada Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman said Thursday. "Trump is all over the place."
On the stump over the past two days, Cruz has made a stridently anti-government pitch to his audiences, hoping to pull together a libertarian-leaning coalition in the first test of his message west of Iowa. He has also flavored his remarks with two state-specific issues: a tax increase the legislature passed last year that caused conservative angst and a pledge to return "full control" of land to Nevada from the federal government.
"I would note that is an issue on which Mr. Trump and I disagree," Cruz said at a rally Monday in Las Vegas, echoing a contrast on display in a TV ad his campaign is airing in Nevada. "Mr. Trump has publicly said he thinks the federal government should continue to control that land, to own that land. I trust the people of Nevada more than the bureaucrats in Washington."
Also on Monday, Cruz debuted a new appeal to Nevadans, seeking to get out the vote by lamenting how low turnout has been in the previous two nominating contests. The state's early caucus system is relatively new — it was first instituted in 2008 — and Tuesday is the first time since then that it is competitive.
"You could have a disproportionate voice in changing the direction of this country," Cruz told Nevadans on Monday in a Las Vegas radio interview.
Despite Cruz's overtures, much of his final push in Nevada has been overshadowed by drama over the viability of his campaign, coming to a head Monday with the firing of his top spokesman, Rick Tyler. Speaking with reporters in Nevada, Cruz has argued why it's Rubio, not him, who should be worried about his path to the nomination, pouncing on Rubio's comment Sunday that the March 15 primaries are "where you really need to begin to win states."
"Now that's a fairly amazing admission that they don't believe they're going to win here in Nevada," Cruz told reporters Sunday in Pahrump. "Apparently they don't believe they're going to win any states on Super Tuesday. They're writing off March 5, they're writing off March 8 and they're trying to wait, apparently, until March 15 to finally win a state, and I would point out right now, even in Florida, his home state, he's right now polling in third place, behind both Donald and I."
A day later in Las Vegas, Cruz kept the focus on Rubio in a news conference that otherwise drew attention for Cruz's announcement that he had asked for Tyler's resignation. Cruz spent the several minutes leading up to it again bashing Rubio, offering a new take on the potential consequence of the Florida senator's barbs.
"If other candidates devote all their time and energy to attacking us, to engaging in personal slurs and attacks, it is possible they could weaken us to a sufficient extent that they hand Donald Trump the nomination," Cruz told reporters. "That is a possibility."
Cruz supporters argue the pressure is on Rubio, not Cruz, to do well Tuesday, citing a National Review article from December that called Nevada a firewall for the Florida senator. Cruz's campaign has kept expectations a bit lower.
"I think we'll have a strong finish in Nevada," Robert Uithoven, Cruz's Nevada state director, said Thursday.
Cruz is scheduled to have his busiest day yet in Nevada on Tuesday, with three rallies across the state and a visit to a caucus site in Sparks accompanied by his wife, Heidi Cruz. He plans to spend election night in Las Vegas.
The caucuses take place between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Dave Weigel with the Washington Post contributed to this report.