Heading into another round of GOP nominating contests, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is determined to solidify his status as the chief alternative to Donald Trump, perhaps his last chance to do so before the presidential race turns to the home states of his other opponents.
Cruz, nursing a cold that sidelined him Sunday, did not mince words as he returned to the campaign trail Monday in Mississippi, one of four states that vote Tuesday.
"In this race, it is clear a vote for any other candidate — a vote for Marco Rubio or a vote for John Kasich — is a vote for Donald Trump because there's only one candidate who has repeatedly beaten Donald Trump," Cruz told reporters following an event in the Jackson-area town of Florence. "There's only one candidate who has and will beat Donald Trump, and that is our campaign."
The clock is ticking for Cruz: The next major wave of contests is a week from Tuesday, when Cruz is hoping at least one of his non-Trump foes — Rubio, the junior U.S. senator from Florida — loses his home state in a likely fatal blow to his campaign. Such a defeat would move Cruz significantly closer to the two-man race with Trump Cruz has desperately sought.
The terrain Tuesday is not quite as favorable for Cruz as it was Saturday, when he bested expectations and ended the day claiming more delegates than any of his opponents. In Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan and Mississippi, 150 delegates are at stake in a mix of closed and open caucuses and primaries, some playing more to Cruz's strengths than others.
Idaho in particular has captured his campaign's attention, with one adviser saying Thursday its efforts are "in very good shape" there. The campaign has been on the air in the state with a TV ad targeting libertarian-leaning voters, and Cruz spent Saturday evening there holding two rallies while results came in for the contests that day elsewhere.
Trump appears to be putting a relatively small effort into Idaho, a state he has not visited in the run-up to the primary but whose potatoes he spent Monday praising on Twitter and while campaigning elsewhere.
“There’s really no sign of Trump," said Robert Uithoven, who handles Cruz's efforts in the western states. Yet Uithoven was not taking anything for granted, adding that Trump still "gets away with that in a lot of places."
In Mississippi, Cruz is experiencing some late momentum following the endorsement Monday of Gov. Phil Bryant. Bryant is Cruz's third gubernatorial endorsement, following nods from Greg Abbott of Texas and Eddie Calvo of Guam.
“It’s time for Republicans to join together and unite the party for the good of our state and our nation,” Bryant said in a statement. “I urge my fellow Mississippians to join me in standing behind Ted Cruz tomorrow.”
In an interview with the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger, Bryant said former Gov. Rick Perry's endorsement of Cruz helped sway him to back the Texas senator. Bryant also revealed he only decided to back Cruz earlier in the day after the two met in person in Mississippi.
Cruz still faces an uphill battle in Mississippi, part of a Deep South where Trump has previously stolen Cruz's thunder. On the eve of the primary, Cruz's campaign described the state of play in Mississippi as fluid, expressing some optimism after voters made a late break toward Cruz on Saturday in another Southern state, Louisiana.
"Mr. Trump’s support is there, but it’s not solid, and I think we’ll have a good showing tomorrow," said Keith Plunkett, who co-chairs Cruz's campaign in Mississippi.
Stumping at a seafood restaurant in Florence, Cruz referred to Trump as "my leading competitor in this state" and described it as a "battleground," just like he did in some places leading up to Super Tuesday. Cruz was accompanied by state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who reminded audiences of Cruz's support for him in the heated U.S. Senate runoff two years ago in Mississippi.
"The one man that stood with me in 2014 wasn’t Donald Trump. It was Ted Cruz," McDaniel told Mississippians. "He remembers. He feels what we feel."
Things are looking a little less certain for Cruz in the two other states that vote Tuesday. Cruz's chances of winning seem slim in the Michigan primary — Trump has led by double digits in all public polling — but his campaign appears hopeful it can keep Trump from capturing more than half the vote and thus sweeping all 59 delegates, the biggest prize of the day.
That endeavor brought Cruz to Grand Rapids late Monday night, where he ran two and a half hours late due to plane problems. "This is effectively the middle of the night," Cruz said after taking the stage before a nonetheless enthusiastic crowd.
As midnight neared, Cruz offered one final appeal to Michiganders before they make their decision Tuesday.
"I understand that you're angry. I'm angry. All of us are angry," Cruz said. However, he added, "you don't stop the Washington corruption by voting for someone who has been part of the corruption."
Much less attention has been paid to Hawaii, the fourth state voting Tuesday and a place that holds some promise for Cruz. His campaign was announcing new support there as late as Monday afternoon, and on Sunday it won the endorsement of the only Republican member of the state Senate. The contest in Hawaii is a closed caucus, a setting in which Cruz has previously excelled.
Since Saturday, Cruz's schedule has been upended by an illness that kept him off the campaign trail Sunday and for part of Monday. After having to cancel an event Monday in Alabama due to the sickness, Cruz's team managed to pull off a last-minute stop elsewhere in the state.
"I’m so sorry," Cruz said after taking the stage in Florence. "I’m struggling a bit under the weather."
Cruz is expected to spend Election Day in North Carolina, one of the states holding nominating contests March 15. He is scheduled to attend a rally in the afternoon in Raleigh and another one in the evening in the Charlotte area.