Donald Trump won big in Nevada on Tuesday night, leaving Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to once again fight amongst themselves for the right to take on the billionaire businessman.
The results were the highlight of a big night in politics, just two weeks ahead of Super Tuesday.
Earlier in the evening, at CNN’s South Carolina Democratic town hall, Hillary Clinton dropped her attacks on Bernie Sanders and focused instead on the stories of the audience — families of gun violence victims, students who owe tens of thousands of dollars in loans and a young woman concerned about racism.
Sanders, meanwhile, was less interested in attacking Clinton than embracing President Barack Obama — and lambasting as “racist” the President’s critics such as Trump.
Here are six takeaways from Tuesday night:
Huge win for Trump
Nevada makes three straight wins for Trump, now the undisputed Republican presidential front-runner.
And in the Silver State, nobody came close. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were 20 points behind as of early returns.
“If you listen to the pundits, we weren’t expected to win too much — and now we’re winning, winning, winning the country,” Trump said in his victory speech. “And soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning.”
While Trump’s climb into the 40% range there isn’t certain to stick elsewhere, his Nevada victory means he has all the momentum as the Republican race picks up steam and goes national.
The days of dozens of town halls in a single state are over. Next Tuesday, 11 states will vote — many of them mirroring the makeup of places Trump has already won.
Two weeks later, Republican contests become winner-takes-all, which helps Trump more, as a strong second-place finish from Cruz or Rubio wouldn’t matter in terms of delegate math
That kind of intra-party contest is tailor-made for Trump. He can suck up an entire state’s media attention with a mega-rally. He can elbow other candidates out of the news just by picking up the phone from his Manhattan office and calling into television shows. And he can do it all without spending much money on TV ads — an advantage that’s hard to overstate.
He can deliver a memorable line — as he did in his victory speech Tuesday night.
“We won the evangelicals,” Trump said. “We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”
The man who accused the last Republican president of misleading the nation into the war in Iraq, mocked 2008 nominee John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war and has repeatedly bashed 2012 nominee Mitt Romney looks increasingly difficult to block from winning the 2016 nomination.
Ted Cruz: All about Super Tuesday
For Ted Cruz, Super Tuesday is the “most important night of this campaign.”
He’s putting his chips on Texas, touting his home-state’s March 1 contest along with a swath of other Southern states like Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma as must-wins against Trump and Rubio.
Cruz was blown out by Trump on Tuesday night — but in his speech, the focus was Rubio. As the results came in, Cruz’s campaign blasted out a release mocking Rubio, arguing that Nevada was the Florida senator’s “firewall” and it failed to hold.
“If you are one of the 65% of Republicans across this country who doesn’t think Donald is the best candidate to go head-to-head against Hillary… then the first four states have performed a vital function of narrowing this race and presenting a clear choice,” Cruz said Tuesday night. “You can choose between two Washington deal-makers, or one proven, consistent conservative.”
Rubio’s camp was making the same case about Cruz, highlighting how hard he’d pushed in the state, only to fall well short.
It underscores, again, the circular firing squad that Trump’s opponents have become — leaving the front-runner untouched as they attack each other.
At the core of Cruz’s argument is that he’s still the only Republican candidate who has defeated Trump — besting the businessman in Iowa’s caucuses.
The belief underlying it: A one-on-one match-up is the only way Trump can be defeated — so the other contenders must be knocked out first.
“The undeniable reality that the first four states have shown is that the only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump and the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump is this campaign,” Cruz said.
Rubio not rising yet
Marco Rubio spent the three days after Jeb Bush exited the race working intensely to consolidate establishment support — unleashing a slew of endorsement announcements and picking off major donors.
But Nevada didn’t give him all that much to show for his efforts — another finish closer to Cruz than Trump. And now, Rubio is out of chances to show he can beat Trump before Super Tuesday.
Not that Rubio was expecting to win. He wasn’t even in Nevada on Tuesday night. He was in Michigan, getting an early night’s sleep and preparing for appearances across a host of national morning news shows.
He’ll be under more pressure as the race goes national. Rubio hasn’t won a state yet, and he’ll need victories to persuade GOP donors to get off the sidelines and take up a late-developing, full-scale effort to knock off Trump.
Sanders hits Obama critics
Sanders wants there to be no doubt: He’s on Team Obama.
He made that clear by accusing Republican presidential front-runner Trump and other birthers of fomenting “a racist effort to try to delegitimize the President of the United States.”
“Nobody has asked for my birth certificate. Maybe it’s the color of my skin, I don’t know,” Sanders said.
Far from portraying himself as the logical successor to Obama, Sanders has been saying to Democrats that the President hasn’t been all that the party’s loyalists wanted him to be.
It’s made for an awkward dance between Sanders and Obama in recent months. First there was the meeting between the two — things were good. Then Sanders lashed out, insisting that Obama has been wrong on some issues — largely because he thought (and said publicly, on BET) that Clinton was pandering for African-American votes by repeatedly embracing Obama’s policies.
But on Tuesday night, Sanders went squarely after Republicans for the President’s struggles to achieve progressive policy goals.
“We have been dealing in the last seven years with an unprecedented level of obstructionism against President Obama,” Sanders said.
The comment came in the context of Sanders’ take on the open Supreme Court seat, and whether Obama should be allowed to fill the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Sanders cozied up to Obama, saying he’s “been at the President’s side.”
So what type of judge would Sanders name to the Supreme Court? The first African-American, appointed by John F. Kennedy. “To answer your question, Thurgood Marshall was a damn good Supreme Court justice,” Sanders said.
Clinton’s personal touch
The former secretary of state seized every opportunity to create human moments.
A question about a young African-American woman’s natural hair and the Black Lives Matter moment became an opportunity for the mothers whose children died in police-related violence to stand and for their stories to be told.
Clinton cribbed one of Sanders’ campaign-trail tactics when a graduate student asked about student loans — asking the woman to share out loud how much she owed.
But her follow-up was markedly different from Sanders, who had earlier made the case for free public university tuition and promised more funding for historically black colleges and universities.
Clinton was aghast when the young woman said her interest rate was between 7% and 9%, and then, point after point, laid out her plan to lower what the student owes: a contingency repayment program; no debt past 20 years; a reduction for those who take national service jobs.
“I want this to be a program where we have affordability and I have a particular commitment to the historically black colleges and universities,” she said.
Sanders, meanwhile, talks broadly about humanity, but he missed several potentially memorable human moments.
When a young man said his father died after a lifetime of cigarette smoking, Sanders said his father had, too — and then turned away.
When the cousin of a Charleston church shooting victim asked a deeply personal question about guns, Sanders’s immediate response was his voting record: “To begin with, let me just say this: I have a D- voting record from the NRA.”
On stage, Sanders was confronted by a Clinton campaign video portraying him as a candidate with one answer to all of what ails America: Wall Street’s millionaires and billionaires.
He swatted away that characterization, running through a litany of issues he frequently brings up on the campaign trail: raising the minimum wage, making public college free, adopting a single-payer health insurance system, ending free trade deals and more.
Sanders pointed out that his campaign speeches often top an hour. “They are the longest, most boring discussions in the history of politics,” he said.
In those speeches, though, Sanders connects all those points to the overarching theme of inequality.
He made that clear as he wrapped up his argument that he sings more than one note.
“What I am fighting for right now is a political revolution in which government starts working for working people and for the middle class, and that’s a revolution that is prepared to take on the billionaire class today which has enormous power,” he said.
Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist — and his moment as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination has been decades in the making.
It’s helped fuel his rise. But it has also given Clinton an opening. In recent weeks, her campaign seems to have settled on the attack that Sanders is a single-issue candidate because it’s a way to highlight the Vermont senator’s own limitations — and do it without criticizing him on his policy positions, which appeal to many liberals.