All eyes of the political world will be trained Tuesday on Florida and Ohio, where two presidential candidates are hoping to win primaries in their home states in potential make-or-break moments for their campaigns.
Ted Cruz wouldn't have it any other way — and not just because the race could come down to himself and Donald Trump soon after. The intense focus on Florida, home to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and Ohio, home to Gov. John Kasich, has left the GOP field relatively open in the three other states that vote Tuesday, providing an opening for Cruz to vacuum up delegates and — just maybe — notch a win against the frontrunner.
Cruz's lane has cleared, “with Rubio trying to make sure he doesn’t get embarrassed in Florida and Kasich doing the same thing" in Ohio, said Carl Bearden, a co-chair of Cruz's campaign in Missouri. "What we see coming up this Tuesday directly plays right into that, and gives Cruz the upper hand."
More than half of the 367 delegates up for grabs Tuesday won't come from Florida or Ohio. And unlike those two states, the other three — Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina — will not award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, creating an incentive for candidates to stump there even if a first-place finish seems out of reach.
Kasich and Rubio are promising to carry their home states, an endeavor that has their respective campaigns deploying most of their resources to their backyards in the run-up to Tuesday. Rubio in particular is scrambling to shore up support in Florida, already warning supporters that the all-in effort means campaign neglect elsewhere Tuesday.
"We are focused on Florida, so don't be surprised if we don't do well in some other states next Tuesday because we're not there. We're here," Rubio said during an MSNBC town hall Wednesday in Miami. "We'd like to pick up delegates in other states, we have good teams in other states, but we're focused on Florida."
Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters Thursday night that Rubio's retrenching in Florida has opened up opportunities for the Texas senator elsewhere, noting that the campaign has seen Rubio's support in non-Florida states drop from the "upper teens" to single digits. "Certainly with the sinkhole he's fallen into, we've been able to grab that support," Roe said.
Cruz is by no means writing off Ohio or Florida, where he has shown some interest in denying Kasich and Rubio the home-state victories they need so they can justify continuing their campaigns. By the time he holds a rally Friday morning in Orlando, Cruz will have spent the majority of his week so far in the Sunshine State. Roe said the campaign has advertising plans for Ohio and Florida but as of Thursday night was not yet ready to execute.
Cruz's campaign is already on the air in Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina — to the tune of millions of dollars, Roe said. The campaign is getting some support from its affiliated super PACs, which said Thursday they plan to spend more than $1 million in Illinois, North Carolina, Missouri, Ohio and the District of Columbia, which votes Saturday.
It's those places where Cruz supporters and neutral Republicans see a field that is effectively Cruz and Trump, with the other two candidates distracted by their home-state rescue missions.
"My feeling is, [Rubio and Kasich] aren’t factors in any major way here. They'll each get their piece of the vote," said Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist from North Carolina. "I'd be surprised if it isn't Cruz and Trump at the top."
Illinois in particular seems to have captured the attention of pro-Cruz forces in a way that others voting Tuesday have not. $111,000 of the Super PACs' planned expenditures is going toward TV advertising, all of which is earmarked for cable spots in the state. And this week alone, the campaign has held nearly a dozen surrogate events, most of them hosted by Cruz's wife Heidi and his father Rafael. The candidate himself will visit the Chicago area Friday night for two events.
"We are really focusing our efforts on the central and south part of Illinois," Heidi Cruz said during a stop Wednesday in Belleville, a city outside St. Louis in southern Illinois. "We’ve brought some of our very best people from our headquarters to Illinois, and on Tuesday, this is a key state for us."
The state could end up being another example of Cruz's strategy so far: Even when Trump is winning the overall vote, Cruz is surgically collecting delegates. Some of Illinois' 69 delegates are awarded by congressional district, giving Cruz a roadmap to relative success as he gears his campaign downstate.
"I expect Trump to win the beauty contest," said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I think Trump won’t get a large majority — I think he’ll get a small majority out of the delegates."
"Will Trump get enough votes from Illinois to significantly advance the number he needs to get the nomination? No," Simpson added.
The campaign is also signaling some commitment to Missouri, where Cruz is expected to spend all of his time Saturday. Cruz is scheduled to attend a rally with his wife and candidate-turned-Cruz backer Carly Fiorina in the morning outside St. Louis, then a Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in the evening in the same area.
Cruz is thought to have an advantage in Missouri due to his team's ties to its political scene via Roe, the campaign manager, founder of the Kansas City-based political consulting firm Axion Strategies. But even some of Cruz's supporters admit that could be double-edged sword given the hard-hitting strategist's divisive reputation among even Republicans in the state.
On Sunday, Cruz is set to return to the Charlotte area in North Carolina for a star-studded rally hosted by a super PAC supporting him. Beyond that, his schedule is not yet known — a reflection, Roe suggested, of how fluid the race remains with just five days until Tuesday.
"We'll see the impact of this debate and then make our travel and spending decisions appropriately," Roe said Thursday night, claiming 25 percent of voters were "still moving around" before Thursday night's 12th Republican debate.
Cruz's supporters are hoping that if all goes according to plan, their candidate will emerge from Tuesday closer than ever to a two-man race with Trump.
"You just clear the field of the last two," Illinois state Sen. Tim Bivins said, "and it’s a whole new ball game.”
Abby Livingston contributed to this report.