- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Donald Trump is running at exactly the same level of support as 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney at this stage in the race amid a much tougher field of candidates, suggesting the billionaire businessman is well positioned to wrap up the nomination in the coming weeks.

His victory late Tuesday in Nevada gives Mr. Trump a third straight win, marks the first time he’s broken 40 percent in the vote in any state and means he’s won about 32 percent of the total votes cast so far — the same level as Mr. Romney.

Nevada’s caucuses also left the other four major candidates struggling to figure a path forward and blaming each other for cluttering the GOP field, and giving Mr. Trump a clear shot at the nomination.

“What we need is a single credible alternative to Trump,” said Fred Malek, a veteran of the Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush administrations. “The clock is ticking incredibly fast. It should happen very soon, or it will be too late.”

The problem for those seeking to stop Mr. Trump is not only that he’s winning with ever-higher margins, but his competitors continue to argue about who should be the one to take him on man-to-man.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who placed second in Nevada and South Carolina, says he’s the logical choice. But Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich said the fact that Mr. Trump won Nevada shows Mr. Rubio can’t get it done. Despite placing third and fifth, respectively, in Nevada, they said it’s time they get a shot.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who placed fourth in Nevada, said he’s sticking around too, insisting the 3,619 votes he got — less than 5 percent of the caucus total — are evidence he’s catching fire.

“While professional politicians have long written off our efforts to return the government to the people, we remain undaunted,” Mr. Carson said. “We’ve barely finished the first inning, and there’s a lot of game left.”

Mr. Trump continues to gain steam, picking up his first congressional endorsements Wednesday from Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York.

The billionaire businessman is poised to do very well on Super Tuesday next week, when 11 mostly Southern states hold contests, with 595 delegates to this summer’s nominating convention up for grabs.

It’s the single biggest day on the nomination calendar, raising the stakes for the non-Trump candidates to score the sort of breakout moment that would force the others out of the race.

To clinch the nomination before the July Republican National Convention in Cleveland, a candidate must collect 1,237 delegates.

Overall, some 1.2 million people have voted in the four GOP contests — a 24 percent increase over 2012, when Mr. Romney won the nomination.

Mr. Trump’s 32 percent of the vote puts him well ahead of the others, with Mr. Cruz second in total votes at 21 percent and Mr. Rubio just behind him at 20 percent. Mr. Carson has won 6 percent of all votes, and Mr. Kasich trails at just 3 percent of the total.

Democrats have held just three contests so far — and their turnout is down 22 percent from 2008, which was their last contested primary.

In terms of delegates to the convention, Mr. Trump has 81, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio have 17 apiece, Mr. Kasich has six and Mr. Carson has four.

“Anyone who thinks Trump isn’t in a strong position at this point to win the nomination is delusional,” said Phil Cox, a GOP strategist who ran a political action committee supporting former candidate Chris Christie. “If it were any other candidate and they’d finished second-first-first-first in the first four contests, the national media would have called it.”

Mr. Cox said pundits had said Mr. Trump couldn’t break 35 percent of the vote, but his win in Nevada, where he took 46 percent, should end that talk.

“The other candidates have concluded there’s no good that comes from going after Trump. Trump’s voters are locked in, and he comes out as the winner in the vast majority of confrontations with other candidates. So the only thing is to try to clear the non-Trump lane,” Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Kasich is hoping to emerge as the non-Trump candidate after March 15, when his home state of Ohio holds its winner-take-all primary.

But he’s stumbled since his surprise second-place showing in New Hampshire, and a Quinnipiac University Poll release this week showed him trailing Mr. Trump by 31 percent to 26 percent in Ohio.

Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz, meanwhile, have been engaged in a fierce battle for months, trading blows over their immigration positions, conservative credentials and overall trustworthiness.

Josh Putnam of Frontloading HQ blog said to make a comeback, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz must keep Mr. Trump to fewer than 200 delegates on Super Tuesday, then win the 165 delegates that are up for grabs in the March 15 winner-take-all contests in Ohio and Florida.

But as long as both Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz are in the race, analysts say they’ll continue to split the vote. In order to take on Mr. Trump, the party faithful needs to settle on a single challenger.

Trump does better when there are three or more candidates. There has not been a good test of the two-person race hypothesis yet, but Trump’s unfavorables and the fact that he is not very many folks’ second choice are suggestive that a two-person race would not be favorable for Trump,” Mr. Putnam said.

Mr. Rubio argues it’s already a two-man race.

Marco’s main rival now, Donald Trump, is someone that the majority of Republicans refuse to support,” the Rubio camp said in a fundraising email Wednesday. “By contrast, Marco is by far the most popular Republican in the field right now. Polls show that in head-to-head match-ups, Marco will defeat Trump, unite the party, and beat Hillary to win the White House.”

But Mr. Cruz dismissed that at a rally in Texas, saying his win in Iowa’s kickoff caucuses gives him the edge over Mr. Rubio, who hasn’t scored a victory yet.

“History has shown that nobody has ever won the nomination in modern times without winning one of the first three states, and there are only two people who have won one of the first three states: Donald Trump and me,” Mr. Cruz said before taking aim at Mr. Trump. “We are not a people who are impressed by a lot of blustery rhetoric that is not backed up by truth.”

“We can’t be fooled by P.T. Barnum,” he said. “The time for the clowns and acrobats and the dancing bears has past.”

The event came shortly after Emerson College released a tracking poll that showed Mr. Cruz leading Mr. Trump by a razor-thin 29 percent-to-28 percent margin in Texas, followed by Mr. Rubio at 25 percent, Mr. Kasich at 9 percent and Mr. Carson at 4 percent.

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