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By David Adams @dadams7308
In the biggest night of the nation’s presidential primary elections so far, the Republican and Democratic party front-runners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, racked up more key wins, as the race now heads to a possibly decisive battle in Florida in two weeks.
Trump and Clinton both won seven of the 11 states up for grabs on the aptly named ‘Super Tuesday,’ from major states in the south such as Texas and Georgia, to Massachusetts in the northeast.
With hundreds of party convention delegates at stake nationwide the results left most of the other candidates with tough decisions about how much longer they can stay in the race.
That could set the stage for the November general election, with Clinton currently leading Trump by a 52% – 44% margin - in a hypothetical match-up, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll of registered voters.
“This has been an amazing evening,” Trump told a crowd at one of his resorts in Palm Beach, Florida. “I feel awfully good,” he added. If the Super Tuesday primary states had a winner-take-all system Trump bragged “this thing would be over.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz won three states, including his home state, as well as neighboring Oklahoma, reinforcing his claim to be the only realistic challenger able to catch Trump, adding pressure on other candidates – including Florida Senator Marco Rubio – to drop out and make it a two-man duel. Cruz also picked up Alaska, despite Trump winning the endorsement of former governor Sarah Palin, a darling of the ultra-conservative Tea Party.
The battle for second
Cruz and Rubio are locked in a battle for second place and seemingly destined for mutual assured destruction.
Speaking in Texas, Cruz urged the other candidates besides Trump to “prayerfully consider” dropping out and uniting around him. “So long as the field remains divided, Donald Trump’s path to the nomination remains more likely,” he said, accusing the New York real estate tycoon of being “profane and vulgar.”
Tuesday’s biggest loser was Florida Senator Marco Rubio, currently the third-placed Republican, who managed to notch up his first win but finished a distant third in several key primaries, including Texas. His campaign is now on life support, analysts say, as it wobbles its way to the key March 15 primary in Florida, the nation’s third largest state and Rubio’s home turf.
“The Rubio project is in disarray,” David Axelrod, former chief elections strategist for Barack Obama, told CNN.
Rubio refused to back down however, vowing to carry his fight ”through all 50 states” in a speech to supporters in Miami. “I will not give up this fight,” he added, saying it was his duty to save the Republican Party from Trump.
While Rubio has won a slew of political endorsements lately, he has failed to pick up the key backing of his one-time mentor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who bowed out of the race 10 days ago. Rubio trails Trump badly in Florida polls and rumors are also flying that Florida’s Republican Governor, Rick Scott, is poised to endorse Trump.
On the Democratic Party’s side, Clinton’s victories cement her front-runner status beating in states across the south where she is especially popular with African-American voters. In a victory speech Clinton rolled out a new message of "love and kindness" as her answer to Trump's often rude and abrasive style.
"America never stopped being great," she said, referring to Trump's favorite campaign slogan. "We have to make America whole," she went on. "Instead of building walls we're going to break down barriers and build ladders of opportunity."
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose call for a political revolution to break the influence of corporate money in politics has resonated with angry younger voters, won his home state with ease. He also won Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota, where more than 200 delegates were at stake. But Clinton won the bigger prizes including Texas, alone worth 252 delegates, as well as Massachusetts and Georgia.
"Bernie has run a great campaign, but it sounds like Hillary's message getting through. It's not enough simply to complain, you need experience to carry things out," said Jose Fernandez, a Cuban American former senior State Department official in the Obama administration and Clinton supporter.
Republicans deeply divided
The results are only likely to fuel an increasingly bitter debate within the Republican Party over the colorful and bombastic tone of Trump’s campaign. His insulting remarks about Mexican immigrants and Muslims, as well as questions over his Christian values, his attitude to race and his upholding of conservative principles, have put the party on the verge of almost open revolt.
On the eve of Super Tuesday several prominent Republicans began to speak out saying they could not support Trump if he wins the nomination, raising the possibility of a rebellion at the party’s July convention and the emergence of a rival third candidate.
After declining to go after Trump earlier in the campaign, Rubio and Cruz suddenly stepped their attacks on him in the last few days, blasting him as a liar and a con-artist. Rubio's verbal assaults grew so intense he became hoarse on Monday and temporarily lost his voice.
But the tactic didn’t appear to work. "They decided to out-Trump, Trump and insult their way to the nomination," said Fernandez. "But Trump is the master of insults. He has succeeded in bringing the level of discourse down to his level. That's a tactical victory for him," he added.
"There is clearly a split in the party but I would caution that a lot of voters will come home even if Trump does secure the delegates he needs to be the nominee," said Geoffrey Skelley at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
If Trump wins the nomination, “I fully expect the Republican Party to circle the wagons,” agreed Steve Schale, a political strategist who worked for the Obama campaign in Florida.
If the party did seek a third candidate at the convention it would be the first time that has happened since 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt led a Republican delegate walkout in opposition to incumbent president William Taft, Skelley noted. The Republican split allowed Democratic Party candidate Woodrow Wilson to walk away with election despite winning only 41% of the vote.
Far from destroying the Republican Party Trump said his campaign was energizing it by attracting new voters. On Tuesday night Trump highlighted that high voter turnout by Republicans has far exceeded Democrats in the primaries so far, a trend that could favor Trump if he makes it to November.
“The Republicans have tremendous energy. The Democrats don’t,” said Trump. “Their numbers are down. Our numbers are through the roof."