LAS VEGAS – Donald Trump will win the Nevada Republican caucuses, CNN projects, expanding his dominance in the early GOP contest despite the well-organized campaigns of his two chief rivals: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
The results in Nevada, a state with complex caucus rules and unreliable voter data, were yet another sign of how Trump's momentum is sweeping the country. He heads into the Super Tuesday contests riding high in the polls and maintaining a wide lead over the other GOP contenders in the delegate count.
Cruz and Rubio had campaigned aggressively in Nevada, but were largely engaged in a fight for second place as they try to consolidate Trump-averse Republican voters around them.
Cruz has attempted to cobble together a coalition of evangelical and libertarian voters, while Rubio has argued that he is the most electable of the GOP candidates. Knowing that time is running short to overtake Trump, Cruz targeted Trump on Tuesday with his sharpest attacks yet.
"Look, I frankly don't care what position Donald decides to support today, tomorrow or the next day. They change every day. I don't care what they are. But pick one and defend it and don't pretend that whenever people suddenly point out what you said, 'Oh, never mind.' And look, part of the reason someone vacillates from position to position to position is they're not starting from a core set of principles and beliefs," Cruz said.
Trump, in turn, sharply ridiculed Cruz.
"I've met much tougher people than Ted Cruz. He is like a little baby compared to some of the people I have to deal with. He is like a little baby: soft, weak, little baby by comparison."
In a state where only 33,000 of the state's 400,000 GOP voters turned out to caucus in 2012 -- a mere 7% -- the campaigns of Cruz, Rubio and one-time candidate Jeb Bush got organized early, snapping up talented operatives and key endorsements, while beginning caucus trainings last fall in the hopes that a strong organization could overcome Trump's momentum.
But Trump steamrolled through all of that, dominating not just Nevada's unreliable polls, but capturing the excitement and buzz in the race with his visits here.
In interviews with dozens of Republican voters across the state over the last week, many said without hesitation that they were standing firmly with Trump and had given little thought to the other Republican candidates.
That has meant a pitched battle for second place here between Cruz and Rubio, who both made a final push in Reno and Nevada's rural areas on Monday. In a sign of his campaign's confidence in a strong showing, Trump held just one rally in populous Clark County, dispatching his eldest son to campaign for him in Elko -- the biggest town in rural northeast Nevada.
The more traditional campaigns of Cruz and Rubio, said longtime Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston, "are very frustrated by what everyone's frustrated by: you can't talk any sense into the Trump voters; they can't turn them."
"When you're hoping that those voters don't turn out, you know that your campaign is playing for second place," Ralston said.
Even without Trump in the mix, Nevada posed institutional challenges for all the campaigns because of the quirky rules of the GOP caucuses and the fact that the party did not maintain a reliable list of caucusgoers from 2008 and 2012.
"It's on a Tuesday night, four hours, with different start times for some of the voting in different counties," Ralston said. "It's a totally goofy system: How do you get good turnout with that?"
According to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, Rubio's team has spent $920,000 to Cruz's $790,000. Trump has spent about $490,000, and Ben Carson, whose candidacy has faded, has spent about $330,000. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has spent nothing.
Before Bush exited the race, the Right to Rise super PAC that was supporting him spent $900,000 -- some of it on ads targeting Rubio.
Though most are predicting low turnout, Trump's allies see the uptick in Republican registrations here as a harbinger that could bode well for his candidacy -- bringing out first time caucusgoers. (Unlike the Democratic caucuses here last Saturday, there is no same-day registration for Republican voters at caucus sites).
It has been difficult to gauge the Trump's team level of organization here. But party officials note that his campaign has been doing caucus trainings since last year.
Over the final days before the caucuses, Trump needled Cruz on Twitter, once again accusing him of dishonest campaign techniques and "dirty tricks."
The real estate magnate seized on the fact that Cruz's spokesman resigned Monday after circulating a video that inaccurately depicted Rubio as dismissing the Bible.
"This guy Cruz lies more than any human being that I've ever dealt with. Unbelievable," Trump said during a rally in Las Vegas, a line of attack he would reiterate in Sparks on Tuesday. "He holds up the Bible and he lies. And then he holds up the Bible again and he lies."
"The evangelicals didn't vote for him," Trump said, alluding to the recent South Carolina results that showed him leading Cruz with that key voting bloc. "You know why? Because they don't like liars. They are really smart people. They don't want to vote for a liar."
Cruz has rejected that rhetoric from Trump and dismissed his showing among evangelicals in South Carolina as the product of a "division of opinion" within a primary process that is "an ongoing discussion."
Evangelical voters are far less of a force here in Nevada, where Cruz has assiduously courted the libertarian voters who once backed Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. At campaign events here, he has cast himself as a staunch defender of the Second Amendment, who will fight for voters who want "government the heck out of their lives." Throwing a dart at Trump, he argued voters should reject any candidate who was willing to cut deals.
While calling Trump "a good man," Cruz honed his closing argument that conservative voters belong with his campaign and that his effort is the "one campaign that can beat Donald Trump."
Touching on a theme he has highlighted in his ads, Cruz cited the reasoning of former President Jimmy Carter, who said he would prefer Trump over Cruz because Trump is "completely malleable" while Cruz "is not malleable. He has far right-wing policies ... that would be pursued aggressively if and when he might become president."
"I'm going to utter a sentence I have never uttered in any other context. I agree with Jimmy Carter," Cruz said in Elko. "We can't get burned again."
Glenn Beck, the conservative radio and television host backing Cruz, drove a harder-edged closing argument against Trump, calling him a bully. As the latest evidence, he cited a Trump tweet in which he threatened the Ricketts family for funding an effort to quash his candidacy.
"Today Donald Trump tweeted a threat to the owner of the Chicago Cubs," Beck said before introducing Cruz in Elko. "When we have a candidate that threatens people... This is not American. This is not equal justice. This is not who were are."
"If we give in to our anger; if we start to go down that path and we start to listen to the bullies, we lose what made us great," Beck said.
Rubio, for his part, avoided attacks on Trump, but told reporters during a gaggle on his plane that more than two-thirds of voters don't want Trump as their nominee and that as the field narrowed "the alternatives to Trump will get stronger."
"Donald has a base of support and if the majority of our party doesn't want him as our nominee, we'll continue to work toward consolidating that," Rubio said.
He joined Trump in criticizing the tactics of the Cruz campaign, stating that the circulation of the inaccurate video with him discussing the Bible was indicative of the culture of the Cruz campaign: "The culture of that campaign is to make things up and say things that aren't true every single day," he told reporters in Las Vegas.
On the stump, however, Rubio largely avoided critiques of his rivals as he continually returned to the argument that he is the most electable argument on the Republican side.
"I am as conservative as anyone else in this race," he said in Elko. "But I am a conservative who will win this race."