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Big Contests Looming, Cruz Pushes Late — And Hard — For Votes

Long after dark here Monday night, the U.S. senator from Texas was pitching Illinois Republicans just hours before polls open in what could be the most consequential day yet of the Republican race for the White House.

Ted Cruz campaigns in San Antonio a day ahead of Super Tuesday, Feb 29, 2016.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — For Ted Cruz, it's better late than never — literally.

Long after dark here Monday night, the U.S. senator from Texas was pitching Illinois Republicans on his viability against billionaire Donald Trump, just hours before polls open in what could be the most consequential day yet of the Republican race for the White House. Nominating contests are set to be held Tuesday here and in four other states: Florida, Missouri and North Carolina and Ohio.

The bulk of the pressure may lie with two other candidates Tuesday — Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida are working feverishly to win their home states — but Cruz faces a test of his own: winning enough of the 357 delegates up for grabs — and maybe a state or two — to emerge the chief alternative to Trump when the dust settles. 

In recent days, that endeavor has sent Cruz scrambling across the country in search of pickup opportunities, making 13 stops in five states since Friday morning. The hunt most prominently brought him to Illinois Monday, when he held five rallies that touched just about every region of the state over the course of 13 hours. 

"Tomorrow is all about delegates," Cruz declared to reporters Monday evening, offering an optimistic outlook of his prospects: "Three of those states — Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina — we're neck and neck. Three of those states, we're effectively tied with Donald Trump and we're campaigning hard and vigorously in all three. The remaining two, Ohio and Florida, we are surging powerfully." 

Public polling indicates Trump is the favorite in all states that vote Tuesday except for Ohio, where the billionaire is locked in a tight race with Kasich. Yet Cruz's campaign has been able to close the gap before, and on Monday, it was fueling a sense of momentum with new endorsements in Florida, Missouri and Ohio, as well as increased ad spending across the states.

"We've seen in the last few elections that voters really do come in at the end. Our spending at the end has really been impactful," Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe recently told reporters. 

What happens Tuesday could dramatically change the trajectory of the race. If either Kasich or Rubio lose the winner-take-all primaries in their home states, they would be hard-pressed to continue their campaigns — at least according to Cruz, who is eager for the field to narrow to just himself and Trump. 

Cruz's 11th-hour effort to ensure that winnowing was not limited to Illinois. Cruz swooped into Missouri on Saturday for four rallies spanning 200 miles across the state — a trip announced less than 24 hours before it happened. 

It is places like Illinois and Missouri where Cruz hopes to accumulate the most delegates Tuesday — and maybe score a victory against Trump. Those two states, along with North Carolina, have been largely neglected by Kasich and Rubio in the run-up to Tuesday as both focus on their home states. 

Cruz "benefits a lot from the fact that Sen. Rubio’s just been dropping in polls consistently and has just lost his momentum," said Tim Bivins, a state senator in Illinois who co-chairs Cruz's campaign there.

The Prairie State played host Monday to a raucous day on the campaign trail for Cruz, who reminded Illinois Republicans at every turn that Trump has given tens of thousands of dollars to the Democrats they loathe — particularly Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Cruz also urged GOP voters in the state to put their new influence to use by denying a win to Trump. 

"Y'all are used to being neglected by national Republican politics," Cruz said at a rally Monday afternoon in Peoria, echoing what he said throughout the day everywhere else. "Well, this cycle Illinois has a platform, has a megaphone, for the whole country."

"There are a lot of people hungry to have input into the candidacy for the Republican side because in Illinois, a lot of Republicans view that there's a slimmer chance their state will go red, so this is the time they really want to hear these kinds of messages," said Tom MacAdam, a supporter who attended Cruz's rally Monday afternoon in Glen Ellyn.

Yet even when Cruz did not bring him up, the specter of Trump was never too far Monday, especially amid a national debate over whether the billionaire is enabling violence at his campaign events. At an afternoon Cruz rally Peoria, a member of the audience who would later wave a Trump sign shouted at the Calgary-born senator that he should "go back to Canada."

"The one difference between this and Donald Trump rally is I'm not asking anyone to punch you in the face," Cruz quipped. "Apparently that gentleman was here collecting another check for Rahm Emanuel."

Cruz's campaign is holding an election night party Tuesday in his hometown of Houston. The next round of contests, which feature Arizona and Utah, is not for another week, though Cruz is unlikely to get much of a break from the campaign trail, with a debate scheduled for Monday in Salt Lake City. 

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz