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Ted Cruz Counts on Rivals' Home-State Struggles

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign is hoping that March 15 will be a day of reckoning for Republican presidential rivals John Kasich and Marco Rubio, whose respective home states of Ohio and Florida head to the polls then.

GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz spoke to reporters on March 1, 2016, in Houston after voting in the Texas primary.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

DETROIT — March 1 used to be the date circled on U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's calendar. Now, March 15 can't come soon enough. 

That's when Cruz’s campaign hopes a day of reckoning will arrive for two of his Republican presidential rivals: John Kasich and Marco Rubio, whose respective home states of Ohio and Florida head to the polls in winner-take-all contests they stand a chance of losing.

Cruz has long talked of the race as effectively being a two-man contest between himself and Donald Trump; on March 15, that could literally come true.

"We've won our home state," Cruz adviser Jason Miller said Thursday, referring to the senator's 17-point rout two days earlier in Texas. "Now, the other candidates have to go win their home state. And if you can't win your home state, you can't win with the voters that know you most, you probably need to do a reality check."

Cruz's campaign is paying particular attention to Florida, where U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is scrambling to make up ground against Trump. Asked Friday night if he was actively trying to deny Rubio a victory at home, Cruz said the premise of the question was not incorrect. 

"In order to defeat Donald Trump, we've got to come together," Cruz told reporters before a rally in Mandeville, La. "If the field remains divided, then he can hope to win winner-take-all states with a plurality of 35 percent." 

Of course, Cruz's hopes for March 15 may be wishful thinking, especially in the context of a nominating process that seems to get wilder by the day. Kasich and Rubio are both promising home-state wins, and they are increasingly raising the potential for a brokered convention down the line if that happens.

Such talk has consumed the GOP in recent days, but Cruz's campaign is holding firm that it believes it can beat Trump before that scenario becomes necessary. Cruz himself on Monday flatly dismissed the idea he was preparing for a contested convention, saying it is "not going to happen."

That insistence is leaving Cruz in the hunt for delegates against Donald Trump — an increasingly futile task, according to some experts, as the billionaire marches toward the nomination. 

"It's just tough — the road forward for anyone not Trump," said Josh Putnam, a University of Georgia lecturer who tracks the nominating process on the website Frontloading HQ.

Cruz "makes a great point: 'I'm the only one that's consistently beating Donald Trump out there,'" Putnam said. "But he faces a question similar to what the other non-Trumps face, which is to say, 'Where are you going to win, and are you going to win on turf that's not on your defined turf?' It's tough to see."

Cruz has argued the states where he has placed above Trump so far — Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Alaska — prove his appeal is more than just regional, as his critics have asserted. He will get another chance to prove that Saturday, when 155 delegates will be at stake in four states: Maine, Louisiana, Kentucky and Kansas.

March 5 holds promise for Cruz, starting with the fact that three out of four contests are caucuses, which reward superior organization — something for which Cruz’s campaign is known. The four states that vote Saturday also all have closed primary systems, meaning only registered Republicans can participate. That mechanism served Cruz well in Alaska and Oklahoma, and his campaign is anticipating a boost from closed primaries beyond Saturday.                              

"The majority of contests that are left are closed primaries, and I think that that's a pretty favorable outlook for us," Miller, the Cruz adviser, said Thursday.

Looking ahead after Thursday night's 11th Republican debate, Cruz aides rejected the idea, pushed by rival campaigns, that the primary schedule only gets less favorable for the Texas senator after Super Tuesday, when he fell short of expectations for a strong showing in the South. Cruz spokesman Ron Nehring said the campaign does not "see any states coming up which are a problem. We see states where we're competitive."

Miller specifically pointed to Kansas and to Idaho, which votes Tuesday, when asked about states where the campaign is most encouraged by its chances. On Saturday, Cruz is scheduled to hold a rally in the morning in Wichita, Kansas, then head to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, for another rally in the evening. 

Of the two home states of candidates that vote March 15, Cruz's team is showing more signs of focus on Florida, where recent polls have found Rubio trailing Trump by as much as 20 points. On Thursday, Nehring described Rubio's situation at home as a "burning Dumpster fire."

Cruz's campaign is ramping up in the Sunshine State, well aware it can do its part to keep Rubio from a critically needed victory. In Mandeville, Cruz told reporters his campaign is "vigorously contesting" Florida but acknowledged he is the underdog.

"Florida is obviously the home state to one of my competitors, Marco Rubio," Cruz said. "He's the favorite son, and Donald Trump is formidable just about everywhere."

On Friday afternoon, Cruz's campaign announced it had opened 10 offices in the Sunshine State this week, calling it a "serious commitment to competing hard" in Florida. The announcement came a day after the campaign held more than a dozen debate watch parties across the state. 

Manny Roman, who chairs the Cruz campaign in Miami-Dade County, says it already has more than 300 county coordinators and thousands of volunteers in the state. The campaign is expected to soon roll out a coalition of supporters who are Cuban-American, an influential voting bloc for which Rubio is also vying.

"We know that this is an uphill battle, but this becomes a lot easier if Sen. Rubio does the right thing and steps down so that conservatives can coalesce around Sen. Cruz," Roman said of Cruz's Florida prospects.

On Thursday, Cruz aides would not go as far to say they are actively working to thwart Rubio in Florida. Nehring, however, noted Cruz supporters there are "very encouraged by the fact that Marco Rubio's numbers are so poor in Florida."

Speaking with reporters after the debate, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant acknowledged Trump is leading polls in Florida but expressed confidence the campaign would close the gap in the next 10 days, much like it did in the final five days before the Virginia primary. Rubio on Tuesday had a late surge in that state, finishing 3 points behind Trump for second.

Cruz's campaign has suggested Rubio is writing off the states that vote between now and March 15 as he seeks to save his bid at home, but Conant insisted the campaign was not doing triage. As for Cruz's growing focus on the Sunshine State, Conant offered some unsolicited advice to the Texas senator. 

"I think any time that Cruz spends in Florida is wasted time," Conant said. "It's a winner-take-all state, and Marco's going to win it."

Cruz, betting on the opposite, is wasting no opportunity to raise the stakes for his opponents with home-state headaches. On Wednesday, he sent a not-so-subtle message to his Senate colleague when he confirmed without hesitation a report that he was preparing to drop out of the race if he had not won Texas.

"I don't think a candidate has a viable path forward if you can't win your home state," Cruz told reporters before a rally in Overland Park, Kansas. "If last night the voters of Texas had made a different decision, I would've had no choice but to suspend the campaign."


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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz