GOP Race Comes Down to Battle in Florida

Donald Trump has a super night against divided opposition.

Trump speaks to supporters on Super Tuesday primary night in Palm Beach, Florida.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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March 1, 2016, 10:19 p.m.

For Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers still dead-set on pre­vent­ing Don­ald Trump from win­ning their party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion, it has come down to Flor­ida.

With 99 del­eg­ates all awar­ded to the win­ner, the state’s primary in two weeks is al­most cer­tainly the last chance to slow the vic­tory roll of the de­veloper-turned-real­ity-TV-star.

“He will ut­terly des­troy the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment and the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” warned Rick Wilson, a Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an strategist and ad-maker who sup­ports Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida in the race and has long soun­ded the alarm about Trump. He ad­voc­ated an all-out ad­vert­ising blitz to dam­age Trump’s stand­ing over the next two weeks, something that would cost at least $20 mil­lion.

“Marco can still be the nom­in­ee, but it’s not go­ing to be easy,” Wilson said. “Our donor world has to wake up today.”

Of course, Ohio Gov. John Kasich can ar­gue that his home state also has a win­ner-take-all primary on March 15 and he is well po­si­tioned to win its 66 del­eg­ates, while Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas can point to states where he’s re­cor­ded ac­tu­al vic­tor­ies: his home state, plus Ok­lahoma on Tues­day night, and first-in-the-na­tion Iowa last month.

But, even after a dis­ap­point­ing Su­per Tues­day, Ru­bio re­mained the party es­tab­lish­ment’s darling as the last, best hope for stop­ping Trump and beat­ing likely Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Hil­lary Clin­ton this Novem­ber. It’s a theme Ru­bio him­self picked up in an Elec­tion Night speech from Miami.

“Two weeks from to­night, right here, we are go­ing to send a mes­sage loud and clear,” he said.

Of course, a Ru­bio win in his home state may not be enough. Four oth­er states vote that day, award­ing an­oth­er 250 del­eg­ates—mean­ing that even if Ru­bio wins Flor­ida and Kasich wins Ohio, Trump could still add a sub­stan­tial num­ber of del­eg­ates to his lead.

And between now and March 15 are nearly a dozen oth­er con­tests that among them will award 356 del­eg­ates. Only Pu­erto Rico’s March 6 primary, with its 23 del­eg­ates, ap­pears fa­vor­able to Ru­bio.

Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Steve Schale, who en­gin­eered Barack Obama’s gen­er­al-elec­tion vic­tory in Flor­ida in 2008, said that while he per­son­ally hopes some­body can de­feat Trump—“I think I’d rather lose to Marco Ru­bio [in the gen­er­al elec­tion] than have the pos­sib­il­ity that Trump could be pres­id­ent”—he is not op­tim­ist­ic that Ru­bio can win the Flor­ida primary, giv­en its his­tory through the years.

“The na­tion­al front-run­ner has al­ways won Flor­ida. And the per­son who’s won the most states has al­ways won Flor­ida,” Schale said. “Flor­ida has very much been a val­id­a­tion state in the primary.”

The fo­cus on Flor­ida and Ru­bio comes after his fail­ure to win Vir­gin­ia Tues­day night, even after spend­ing con­sid­er­able time and en­ergy there in re­cent days. Ru­bio fin­ished second or close to second in three of the four early-state con­tests, and even strong sup­port­ers have grown nervous about his abil­ity to ac­tu­ally win primar­ies and gath­er enough del­eg­ates to block Trump from amass­ing the 1,237 needed to clinch the nom­in­a­tion.

Ru­bio’s weak per­form­ance in oth­er Su­per Tues­day states—his num­bers in Texas, for ex­ample, were close to the min­im­um threshold re­quired to win any of the 47 statewide del­eg­ates—will fur­ther com­plic­ate party lead­ers’ ef­forts to de­feat Trump. Their think­ing has long been that a single non-Trump can­did­ate stood a much bet­ter chance of stop­ping him than did sev­er­al can­did­ates split­ting the vote and en­abling Trump to dom­in­ate.

The vari­ous “es­tab­lish­ment” can­did­ates largely ac­cep­ted this the­ory, but each be­lieved that he was best suited for this single-com­bat role and that the oth­ers should drop out. That think­ing con­tin­ued in­to Tues­day, with Ru­bio, Cruz, and Kasich all be­liev­ing the oth­er two should drop out.

Rick Wilson, mean­while, also blamed deep-pock­eted donors who failed to take down Trump when it would have been much easi­er. He said he told this to all who would listen last sum­mer: “We can spend tens of mil­lions of dol­lars now to stop Don­ald Trump, or we can spend hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in the spring, or we can spend tens of bil­lions of dol­lars when Hil­lary is pres­id­ent,” Wilson said. “It was the com­pla­cency and in­er­tia of our donor class—after be­ing told for eight straight months how dan­ger­ous this guy was, that if they didn’t nuke this guy, the me­dia would pick this guy as our nom­in­ee.”

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