WASHINGTON (JTA) — With two more wins, Ted Cruz emerged as the likeliest challenger to front-runner Donald Trump in the Republican presidential race.
Bernie Sanders also picked up two states in nomination contests on Saturday, but it was not enough to reduce the delegate lead of his rival for the Democratic nod, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Cruz, a Texas senator, bested Trump, a billionaire real estate magnate, in Kansas and Maine, and Trump won contests in Louisiana and Kentucky.
The wins distinguished Cruz from the two other challengers in the race, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ohio Gov. Kasich. Cruz has now won six states to Trump’s 12, while Rubio has only one state in his column, and Kasich none.
Cruz appeared to be gathering momentum. Whereas Cruz bested Trump by wide margins in the states he won, the margins were much tighter in states Trump won.
Trump had campaigned hard in all four states. Cruz’s strong performance suggests that the battering Trump has taken in recent days from the Republican establishment is having an effect. Mitt Romney, the 2012 candidate, on Thursday urged voters to vote for anyone but Trump.
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The effect was especially evident in Louisiana, where Trump eked out a win only because he led among early voters; ballots could be cast in the state from Feb. 1. Cruz led among late deciders, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling analysis website.
Trump ended the day with 378 delegates, Cruz has 295, Rubio has 123 and Kasich has 34, according to the New York Times count. The next big contest for Republicans is in Michigan on Tuesday. Rubio and Kasich face do-or-die contests in their home states, Florida and Ohio respectively, on March 15.
Sanders picked up Nebraska and Kansas in Democratic voting on Saturday, while Clinton picked up Louisiana. Sanders now has seven state wins to Clinton’s 12. He is the first Jewish candidate to ever win nomination contests in a presidential run.
However, he still faces a narrow path to victory. Clinton keeps picking up the larger states and does substantially better among minorities. Polls show her with substantial leads over Sanders in many of the major primary states coming up, including Michigan on Tuesday and Florida on March 15.
While Sanders won two of the three states in contention for Democrats on Saturday, Clinton bested him in delegates, 55-47. She now leads in delegates, 1,121 to Sanders’ 479. Sanders partisans point out that about 450 of the delegates in the Clinton count are “superdelegates,” party members who have said they prefer Clinton, but who are free to change their mind come the convention.
Should Sanders accrue more delegates state by state by that time, the superdelegates would be under intense pressure to commit to him.