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Cruz Gains Momentum as Anti-Trump Candidate

Ted Cruz has gotten his groove back. After underwhelming performances in a number of contests since the Iowa caucuses, the U.S. senator from Texas on Saturday night decisively regained momentum with victories in Kansas and Maine.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on stage at the Redneck Country Club in Stafford, Texas on the evening of the Texas primary on Mar. 1, 2016.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

Ted Cruz has gotten his groove back.

After underwhelming performances in a number of GOP nominating contests since the Iowa caucuses, the U.S. senator from Texas on Saturday night regained momentum with resounding victories in Kansas and Maine and narrow losses elsewhere. Saturday's results lent the most credibility yet to Cruz's argument that Republicans should rally behind him against billionaire Donald Trump. 

"Today has been a very good day," a beaming Cruz said as he took the stage Saturday evening in Idaho, moments before he was projected to win his second contest of the day. "Apparently they just called that we won Maine," Cruz later announced, earning loud cheers at Boise State University — his presence there itself a sign of Cruz was already setting his sights on Idaho's Tuesday primary. 

Speaking with reporters earlier Saturday evening elsewhere in Idaho, Cruz summed up his argument that his win-loss record makes him the standard-bearer of the anti-Trump coalition. "You can't beat something with nothing," he said, conjuring the one win Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio managed between them against Trump. 

It was not just Saturday's results that had Cruz feeling good. That afternoon, Cruz easily won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest annual gathering of its kind in the country. Trump had skipped the conference earlier in the day to campaign in Kansas, where Cruz ended up walloping him anyway. Cruz captured 40 percent of the straw poll vote, while Rubio trailed him at 30 percent and Trump at 15 percent. 

Between the election results and CPAC triumph, Cruz's campaign moved quickly to press its case that those looking to defeat Trump have only one option left in the GOP field. Bob Vander Plaats, a national co-chair of Cruz's campaign, called Saturday a "game-changer" for the Texas senator, making an appeal to the growing group of Republicans who have taken to Twitter to vow not to support Trump if he wins the nomination. 

"Hashtag 'Never Trump' is not on the ballot," Vander Plaats said. "You need to get behind somebody."

By Sunday morning, even one of Cruz's most outspoken critics in the Senate — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — was calling Cruz the GOP's best bet to stop Trump. Graham said the two had spoken on the phone a couple of days ago after he first suggested the party may have to rally behind Cruz against Trump.

"To me it's clear Ted has made the best case so far that he can be the alternative to Trump," Graham said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." "At the end of the day, I know what I'm getting with Ted Cruz."

Cruz was expected to have a respectable showing Saturday night due to favorable conditions: Three out of four of the contests were caucuses and all were closed elections. But few expected him to win two states outright — let alone by wide margins — and the results served as a shot in the arm following a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina and a Super Tuesday showing that did not match the hype Cruz had created for himself six months ago. 

Cruz's campaign was particularly pleased with its performance in Kansas, where Cruz won with a 25-point margin after internal numbers had suggested a much closer race. On Twitter, Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe revealed Trump was leading the polling Monday with 31 percent, while Cruz and Rubio were behind him with 28 and 27 percent, respectively. 

Cruz's campaign was expecting to finish a distant second in Louisiana and Maine. Kentucky, which Cruz did not even bother visiting in the lead-up to Saturday, "seemed likely out of reach," according to one campaign official who partly attributed the apparent late break to Cruz's performance Thursday at the Republican debate in Detroit.

Cruz ended up winning Maine by 13 points and trailing Trump in Kentucky and Louisiana by four points each. In Louisiana specifically, there were signs of a swing toward Cruz between early voting and Election Day.

"Clearly there’s a seismic shift in conservatives deciding to rally around our campaign in these final days," Cruz adviser Jason Miller said early Sunday morning. 

Cruz's rivals rushed Saturday night to explain why this may be as good as it gets for the Texas senator. Rubio's campaign was first out of the gate, arguing that Cruz has shown he can only win his home state, a neighboring state (Oklahoma) and "small rural caucuses," which are far outnumbered by primaries in the coming contests. 

"Marco has done well in primaries so far," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in an appearance on Fox News. "We beat Ted Cruz in Virginia. We beat Ted Cruz in South Carolina. We beat Ted Cruz in Georgia, a state that Ted Cruz originally thought he might actually win. So we feel really good about the map moving forward." 

Trump also predicted a rocky road ahead for Cruz as he called for the field to clear so the two can battle mano a mano. 

"I would love to take on Ted one-on-one because that would be so much fun, because he can't win New York, he can't win Pennsylvania, he can't win California," Trump said. "I want Ted one-on-one, OK?"

Kasich's campaign, meanwhile, argued Cruz had not done enough to capitalize on a primary schedule that played to his strengths on the front end. The bottom line, according to a memo from Kasich strategist John Weaver: "Ted Cruz needed to get more delegates out of the southeast and caucus states than he was able to get, and his path is closing."

Yet Cruz's campaign came out of Saturday night more emboldened than ever about its path ahead, pointing out there are still many closed elections to be had and a slew of winner-take-all contests that could go a long way toward securing the nomination. Perhaps no primary is occupying the campaign's attention like Florida, where it sees an opportunity to deliver a knockout punch to Rubio. 

After Rubio's poor performance Saturday night — he did not even meet the threshold to collect certain delegates in Kentucky and Louisiana — Cruz's campaign said there is still time for him to cut his losses. 

“A savvy strategy would be — and I say this with all due respect to Marco Rubio — for Marco Rubio to say, 'I’m not going to lose my home state of Florida,' because that’s devastating for his future, and 'I’m going to get behind Ted Cruz who can beat Donald Trump and beat Donald Trump with Ted Cruz in Florida,'" Vander Plaats said.

Before Florida, however, Cruz has his work cut out for him. On Sunday, voters head to the polls in Puerto Rico, one of five U.S. territories where the Cruz campaign made a point of building support as far back as six months ago. Then on Tuesday, nearly as many delegates that were at stake Saturday are up for grabs in another four states: Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan and Mississippi. Cruz's campaign has zeroed in on Idaho, but expectations will also be elevated in Hawaii, one of two remaining caucus states, and Mississippi, one of the last states to vote in a part of the country with which Cruz has proclaimed he shares much in common.

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz