- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas voters embraced challengers in presidential caucuses, giving Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders big victories to boost their campaigns against Republican front-runner Donald Trump and Democratic leader Hillary Clinton.

Voters on Saturday defied leading Kansas voices who had endorsed Clinton for the Democrats and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for the Republicans. The GOP opted instead to stay on the right of the political spectrum in backing Cruz, the Texas senator, while Democrats moved left to embrace Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist.

Both Cruz and Sanders won by 2-to-1 margins over Trump and Clinton, with Rubio a distant third in the Republican count.

Cruz touted his strong conservative record on social issues and in opposing President Barack Obama’s federal health reform law to secure votes from the state’s large conservative Christian community. Some voters said the Texas senator was more in tune with their views and backed him, even though billionaire businessman Trump is leading the national race and had a last-minute rally in Wichita.

“God bless Kansas.” Cruz declared while campaigning in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, after the result.

“The scream you hear, the howl that comes from Washington D.C., is utter terror at what we the people are doing together,” he said.

Sanders supporters clearly outnumbered Clinton backers at caucus sites in Wichita, Lawrence and east Topeka. At a union hall in Wichita, they were so numerous that they had to congregate outside so their numbers could be counted.

“People used to ask, ‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’” Sanders said in a statement from Warren, Michigan, where he was campaigning. “It turns out that there’s nothing the matter with Kansas when you give people a clear choice and involve them in the democratic process.”

Turnout was high for both parties, although the surge was greater for the GOP, which is the dominant party in the conservative-leaning state.

The state GOP said more than 81,000 people sought to cast ballots at 103 sites, though more than 8,000 remained uncounted Saturday night. That exceeded party officials’ most optimistic projections. Turnout for the 2012 caucuses was about 30,000.

The Democratic Party said about 40,000 participated in the caucuses at 47 sites. That exceeded the 33,000-plus who caucused in 2008 - another bad day for Clinton, as Barack Obama supporters overwhelmed caucus sites to give him a resounding victory then.

Sanders supporters were enthusiastic about the self-declared democratic socialist.

“I have never felt so confident in a candidate in my life,” said Gina Searle, a 35-year-old sales associate in Wichita, a single mother.

Thirty-three Democratic delegates were at stake in Saturday’s caucuses, and Sanders captured 23, and Clinton, 10. The state has another four party leaders who are designated as superdelegates and can support any candidate. One of them has declared for Clinton.

On the Republican side, Cruz captured 24 of the state’s 40 delegates and Trump, nine. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio won six and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, one.

Rubio finished third in Kansas results, despite having endorsements from Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.

Most of the Kansas GOP’s establishment was wary of Trump and were instead split between Cruz and Rubio. Trump told thousands of supporters in Wichita that he had been scheduled to attend an annual gathering of national conservative leaders Saturday but backed out to attend the Kansas rally.

Trump voters said they’re fed up with American politics or saw their support for him as a way to send a message to GOP leaders.

Backers of other candidates split over whether they could support Trump as the GOP nominee.

While at least a few GOP voting at Olathe South High School said they could, Matt Murphy, a 30-year-old cigar sales representative from Gardner and a Cruz supporter, said “absolutely not.”

“We don’t trust him,” said his wife, Sandi, also a Cruz supporter.

Clinton was the choice of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other state party establishment figures, picking up votes from Democrats who valued her experience. Myra Strother, a 59-year-old physician in Lawrence, called Clinton “a great problem solver.”

But the former secretary of state faced a surge of new voters and energized progressives supporting Sanders.

“It is Bernie or nothing,” said McKinsey Wohler, a 31-year-old towing-service dispatcher from Wichita. “There is no other candidate as far as I am concerned.”

___

Associated Press writer Roxana Hegeman in Wichita and Melissa Hellmann in Lawrence contributed to this report. Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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