CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Florida should be a bastion of support for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Instead, it could be his last stand.
Ditto for Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich faces enormous pressure to win his home state to stay in the race.
The pivotal votes on Tuesday could be the last gasp for mainstream Republican candidates to stop front-runner Donald Trump and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who are both building big leads in the race for delegates.
All 99 of Florida’s delegates and 66 of Ohio’s delegates are up for grabs Tuesday, and the winner-take-all primary is shaping up to be a defining moment in the campaign.
Polls show Kasich and Trump in a close race in the Buckeye State, while Rubio, a first-term senator, trails Trump in Florida after a miserable week at the ballot box. His support in contests across the South and Midwest collapsed as Trump and Cruz both picked up a string of new victories.
Still, Rubio has drawn a line in the sand in his sun-splashed home territory, vowing to beat Trump here on his way to a brutal fight over delegates at the party’s convention in July.
“We’re going to win Florida, and you’ll find out March 15 how confident we are,” Rubio said, adding: “This map only gets better for us.”
His rivals see a chance to land a knockout punch. Trump has crisscrossed the state and declared from his luxury golf resort on Florida’s east coast that he’ll handily win. And Cruz has upped the pressure, too, rolling out an endorsement at a Miami event from former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who dropped out of the GOP race last month.
“If conservatives can unite, we can win in every state,” said Cruz, who is in third place in most Florida polls. “Donald Trump has a hard ceiling of 35 percent to 40 percent that he can’t get above. If you don’t want to see Hillary Clinton in the White House, you need to vote for me.”
Five contests on Tuesday
More than 360 delegates are at stake in Tuesday’s GOP contests, and most of them are in winner-take-all primaries. Aside from Florida and Ohio, voters will also cast ballots in Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.
The Florida contest is likely the most expensive and the most bitter. The state’s former governor and another one-time presidential contender, Jeb Bush, has so far refused to back Rubio since he withdrew from the race after a dismal finish in South Carolina. Voters here are deluged by negative ads.
Rubio’s campaign is depending on a strong turnout in Miami-Dade County, a vote-rich region heavily populated by Cuban-Americans that is his base of support. Yet interviews with more than two dozen voters in Florida showed many had misgivings about Rubio’s chances, with many torn between him and Cruz, who, like Rubio, is also the son of Cuban immigrants.
“Cruz is the best candidate for the Republicans — and the only one that’s going to be strong,” said Clara Villareal, a Miami Cubano. “Senator Cruz is more prepared, he has more experience. And he’s the only one who can beat Donald Trump. I’m very worried about him.”
Robert Makovicka of Fort Lauderdale is frustrated that the divided GOP race has given Trump an opening — and worried that a strong showing from the billionaire on Tuesday can inexorably push him down the path to the GOP nomination.
“If Rubio and Kasich dropped out of the race and made it a two-man race, it would be over. Cruz would win handily. No contest,” he said. “But you’re already starting to see the establishment kinda look at Ted differently. They know Trump, basically, is a lunatic.”
Trump’s hardened supporters are drawn to his promises to upend the status quo, his strongman rhetoric and his vow to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
“Trump is the only man who has the capacity to lead America and get our economy out of the hardships we’ve been experiencing,” said Daniel Kwiatkowski, a college student. “The others are corrupt politicians. We need someone who is a fresh voice.”
Some Florida Republicans are looking beyond Tuesday, predicting a weakened Rubio will be forced to drop out. Jorge Lendeborg, a Republican political consultant in Miami, said that will only embolden the case for Cruz.
“That’s the only way we can beat Trump,” he said.
Even some anti-Trump voters are beginning to reluctantly embrace the likelihood of a his nomination, despite the calls of Mitt Romney and other establishment figures who have assailed the front-runner.
Daniel Suarez, a Miami college student, cast an early ballot for Cruz, though he said he’s also a fan of Rubio. Hispanics like him, Suarez said, are deeply concerned about Trump’s immigration rhetoric. And yet his fear of another Democrat landing in the White House could be enough for him to set aside his concerns about Trump in November.
“I’m open-minded,” Suarez said. “If Trump can impress me by the time I get my absentee ballot this fall, I might change my mind.”
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