His firebrand campaign close to a cliff edge, Senator Ted Cruz has rushed to protect his home flank, imploring a ballroom filled with several hundred supporters in South Dallas to stay at his side as his own state of Texas and 10 others vote on Super Tuesday, a vital milestone in the nomination race.
In a searing speech, Mr Cruz repeatedly assailed Donald Trump, who appears set to win if not Texas, where Mr Cruz holds a lead according to polls, then perhaps most of the other states voting on Tuesday, inflicting still further damage on both his own campaign and that of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
“Super Tuesday is the most important day in this entire primary season. We are going to have a very good Super Tuesday,” he said, before virtually begging the room to help build turnout among his supporters in Texas and beyond. Should he lose in Texas, Mr Cruz would face pressure to leave the race.
“If you don’t think Donald Trump is the right candidate to go head to head with Hillary Clinton then this is the only campaign that has gone against Hillary Clinton and the only campaign that can beat Hillary Clinton,” he declared.
But it was at Mr Trump that he aimed his cannons, accusing him of being naive on Middle East policy, giving donations to Democrats who backed immigration reform in Washington in 2013 and hiring “hundreds of foreign workers” instead of Americans at his resorts.
“You don’t get to abuse and take advantage of American workers and suddenly style yourself a champion of American workers,” he said.
Nothing is predictable in this election. If Mr Trump falls short of expectations today, it is likely to have less to do with the strength of his rivals and more with his stumbles, including his failure in a CNN interview on Sunday to condemn the Ku Klux Klan and spurn the endorsement from the former KKK Grand Dragon David Duke. Yesterday, he claimed he had not understood the question, because of a faulty earpiece.
Mr Cruz has built his campaign on a southern strategy from the start, which either crumbles or bears fruit today when, aside from Texas, a welter of southern states filled with the evangelical Christians he would normally count on, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Oklahoma, also vote. Yet that base of support has been plundered by Mr Trump, who has outperformed Mr Cruz among evangelicals and conservatives in those states that have already voted. In Nevada last week, Mr Trump won 40 per cent of the evangelical vote, further sabotaging the main strategic premise of Mr Cruz: that born-again Christians would rise up, across the South especially, and carry him to the nomination.
For Republicans still not convinced by Mr Trump, or just despairing of him, the options are running out. Among those who filled the Gilles Ballroom in Dallas for the Cruz event, Cynthia Stewart, a retired college administrator, said she thought it unlikely the Texas Senator or anyone else would be able to stop the Trump train. But then she could barely imagine that might mean voting for Mr Trump in November.
“For me it will always be anybody but Hillary,” she said. “But my goodness, I’m afraid it is going to come down to Donald Trump. He will have so many pitfalls, but I may have to vote for him.”
“It’s very depressing,” added Gary Rains, 56, a reservoir engineer, a self-described constitutional conservative and Cruz backer. Mr Trump was “brainwashing the uneducated”, he offered. “I don’t know if he is going to be able to keep it up but if Ted Cruz isn’t nominated, I think Trump will be beaten by Hillary Clinton. I can’t see how we can have four years of Clinton – our country will be destroyed”.
As Mr Cruz has been drowned out by Mr Trump, so he has also struggled to separate himself from Mr Rubio, who led the charge against the billionaire at a debate in Houston last week and has won the support of the party establishment. Each man urgently needs the other to drop out so they can lead the anti-Trump forces. But if Mr Cruz wins Texas and Mr Rubio also makes respectable second-place showings elsewhere today, neither man will be inclined to do so. Which is what Mr Trump will want.
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