Ted Cruz had a super Tuesday.
The Texas senator has suffered through a string of rough news cycles, from losing evangelicals to Donald Trump in South Carolina to firing his communications director and finishing behind Marco Rubio in Nevada.
But Cruz finally caught a few big breaks, and he could now emerge (once again) as the best bet to stop Trump. He won his home state of Texas by 17 points (the day's biggest delegate prize), the neighboring state of Oklahoma (in a surprise) and the caucuses in Alaska (underscoring his appeal to libertarians and in spite of Sarah Palin's support for Trump). He lost Arkansas to Trump by just 2 points.
• Rubio, meanwhile, had a very disappointing night and continues to not live up to his potential. He won only the Minnesota caucuses and wound up losing Virginia, which was fertile territory and where he campaigned hard.
Besides the obvious reality check that the Florida senator has won just one of the first 15 states (that's a 1-14 record in football terms), he finished third Tuesday behind Cruz in several states where he ought to have finished second, including Tennessee (where he had the backing of Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Lamar Alexander) and Massachusetts. Top Rubio campaign officials told donors before results came in yesterday that they might win outright in Arkansas and Oklahoma. He finished third in both of those places too.
Despite campaigning hard in Alabama over the weekend, Rubio only pulled in 18.7 percent. And he got a point less than that in Texas, where he campaigned and his team expected to do better. This means he fell beneath the 20 percent threshold to collect any delegates from those states. And it bears noting that, in several states, Democrats voted for Rubio to try embarrassing Trump.
• Cruz now has far more delegates than Rubio, and he doesn't have Gang of Eight baggage. He has well-funded super PACs. He's invested in building organizations for the upcoming caucus states and to collect delegates from places like Guam and the Virgin Islands.
• To be clear: On the day with the most delegates at stake, Trump won seven of 11 states. He romped in the Deep South while proving again that he's not a regional candidate. His strongest performance actually came in Massachusetts, where he took 49 percent of the vote.
Dan Balz, whose work appears on JWR, declares that the window for stopping Trump has now "closed almost completely." He explains that the demoralized anti-Trump forces are very unlikely to agree upon a strategy to stop the New York billionaire. "There's this fallacy that some small group can get together and decide the outcome of this," former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt told him. "That does not exist."
That stipulated, Balz argues, "Cruz can now claim, with more credibility, the mantle of the true conservative in a conservative party against a front-runner with no clear ideology and views at odds with GOP orthodoxy." Whether that's enough to win in Northern states is an open question. Chris Cillizza, whose work also appears on JWR, likewise declares Cruz a winner and Rubio a loser of Tuesday night: "Suddenly Cruz looks like the favorite to be the alternative to Trump. Plus,the votes between Tuesday and the March 15 primaries -- Louisiana, Kansas, etc. -- look like potential Cruz wins."
The establishment loathes Cruz, but they may reconsider if faced with a binary choice between Trump and Cruz. "Cruz is not my favorite by any means . . . but we may be in a position where we have to rally around Cruz as the only way to stop Trump. I'm not so sure that would work," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CBS. Asked if he would recommend rallying behind Cruz to stop Trump, Graham said yes. "I can't believe I would say yes, but yes," he said.
• By all accounts, the GOP field will stay scattered (which works to Trump's advantage).
Kasich came within three points of winning Vermont. "We have absolutely exceeded expectations," he said, promising to fight on in Michigan and Ohio.
Rubio, in Miami, claimed a late surge and predicted he'll win Florida on March 15. His home state is winner take all. If he loses there, he's done. Polls show him trailing, and it's not a sure thing he can pull it out:
As Cruz himself correctly pointed out during his speech in Houston, "So long as the field remains divided, Donald Trump's path to the nomination remains more likely."
• As of Wednesday, the Republican National Convention in Cleveland seems like the only place Trump can still be stopped.
• 02/25/16:Trump's romp in Nevada shows why the establishment's conventional wisdom about his ceiling may be wrong
• 02/24/16: Inside Marco Rubio's suburban strategy
• 02/23/16: Trump seen as losing South Carolina debate .