Cruz, Rubio face critical test in Nevada as Trump ahead

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Donald Trump was fighting for a third straight victory in Tuesday night's Nevada caucuses as he sought to expand a lead that could soon be insurmountable in the Republican presidential race.

The caucuses are a critical test for the leading Republican candidates. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is trying to prove he can build on recent momentum, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wants to keep from spiraling out of contention.

"I think it's the most unpredictable of all the races we've had so far," said Rubio, who is emerging as the Republican establishment's candidate.

Cruz, a fiery conservative popular among voters on the party's right, needs to recover from one of the weakest moments of his campaign. After denying charges of dishonest tactics for several weeks, the Texas senator on Monday asked for the resignation of a senior aide who spread an inaccurate news report suggesting Rubio had criticized the Bible.

That was just days after Cruz finished a disappointing third in the South Carolina primary. Another disappointing finish in Nevada would raise new questions about his viability heading into March 1, or Super Tuesday, when multiple states will hold primaries, including Cruz's home state of Texas.

"There's something wrong with this guy," Trump said of Cruz in his typically blunt style during a Las Vegas rally Monday night. The former reality television star called Cruz "sick."

Trump is on a roll after winning primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Cruz won the lead-off Iowa caucuses.

Nevada marks the first Republican nominating contest in the West and the fourth of the campaign as the candidates try to collect enough delegates to win the party's nomination at the national convention in July.

Nevada's caucusing takes place in schools, community centers and places of worship across the state — a process that's been chaotic in the past. Trump has held several large rallies in the state, but Rubio and Cruz have spent months developing a stronger ground game which might help get their supporters to the caucus sites.

Although Nevada has relatively few delegates, it is the first measure of voter sentiment in the vast western region, much as South Carolina was the first glimpse at the South's preferences last weekend.

Nevada is 28 percent Latino, 9 percent Asian-American and leads the nation with the highest rate of people living in the country illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Its immigrant communities — 19 percent of its population was born outside the United States — have helped turn a once reliably Republican state into one that backed Obama twice. Many analysts attribute that to hardline Republican positions on immigration.

A Republican field that included a dozen candidates a month ago has been reduced to five, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush the latest to drop out after a disappointing finish in South Carolina. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson remain in the race and could play spoilers as the trio of leading candidates, Trump, Cruz and Rubio, battle for delegates with an increasing sense of urgency.

Trump's rivals concede they are running out of time to stop him.

The election calendar suggests that if the New York billionaire's rivals don't slow him by mid-March, they may not ever. Trump swept all of South Carolina's 50 delegates, giving him a total of 67 compared to Cruz and Rubio who have 11 and 10, respectively.

There are 30 delegates at stake in Nevada, awarded to candidates in proportion to their share of the statewide vote so long as they earn at least 3.33 percent.

Rubio and Cruz have been attacking each other viciously in recent days, an indication they know Trump can be stopped only if one of them is eliminated. But neither of the first-term Hispanic senators is predicting victory in Nevada.

After finishes of third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in South Carolina, Rubio needs a win soon to support his theory that he is the primary beneficiary of Bush's recent departure from the race. Rubio told supporters Tuesday before heading out to campaign in Minnesota and Michigan that he was the candidate who could best grow the Republican Party here.

___

Benac reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Las Vegas and Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.

|

..