Florida is the new focus of the topsy-turvy presidential campaign after 11 states weighed in on Super Tuesday and cemented Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the likely Republican and Democratic nominees.
It appeared Florida Sen. Marco Rubio would finish the busiest day of the 2016 primary season with his first victory, in Minnesota. But that left him having lost 14 of the 15 states voting to date — and trying to argue he is the best candidate to stop Trump.
Florida is Rubio's next huge test on March 15, but three polls released last week showed Trump leading Rubio among Sunshine State Republicans variously by 7 percentage points, 16 percentage points and 20 points.
"We are so excited about what lies ahead for our campaign," Rubio declared to a boisterous hometown crowd in Miami. "You see, five days ago we began to unmask the true nature of the frontrunner so far in this race. Five days ago we began to explain to the American people that Donald Trump is a con artist."
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz maintains he is the top alternative to Trump, having won the Iowa caucuses last month and then Texas and Oklahoma on Tuesday. Those were small victories considering Cruz had once expected to sweep the Southern states, but Cruz all but called for Rubio and the other underdogs to drop out.
"So long as the field remains divided Donald Trump's path to the nomination remains more likely. And that would be a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives and for the nation," Cruz said at a rally in Texas. "Our campaign is the only campaign that has beaten, that can beat and that will beat Donald Trump."
Trump held his own news conference at his ornate Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, predicting that lobbyists and special interests would spend at least $20 million trying to help "lightweight" Rubio beat Trump in Florida.
Clinton steadied herself after an unexpectedly strong challenge from Sanders. The Vermont senator did carry his home state decisively along with Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota, and told the crowd at a raucous victory party that he was "so proud to bring Vermont values all across this country."
Exit polls underscored Sanders' continued weakness with black voters, a core part of the Democratic constituency. Clinton led with African-Americans, as well as both men and women, in Georgia and Virginia, according to surveys conducted by Edison Research for the Associated Press and television networks.
Of the seven Southern states that voted Tuesday, Clinton got more than 8 in 10 black votes everywhere but Oklahoma, where three-quarters of black voters backed her. Black voters made up more than a quarter of the votes overall.
Sanders continued to show strength with young voters, carrying the majority of those under the age of 30.
"What a Super Tuesday!" Clinton told supporters in Miami as the results came in. "We will need all of you to keep volunteering, doing everything you can, talking to your friends and neighbors, because this country belongs to all of us."
On the Republican side, party leaders are in near panic over Trump, fearing that he not only could deliver the White House to Clinton in a landslide but also damage Republicans running for other offices. Even as he continues to vacuum up delegates toward what soon could be an insurmountable lead, many Republicans are vowing to block him all the way to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland July 18-21.
"Donald's general election campaign will fail worse than Trump Mortgage and Trump Steaks. Hillary Clinton will destroy him even if she's campaigning from jail," said Tim Miller, former spokesman for the Jeb Bush campaign, who is now working for a super PAC aiming to halt Trump. "Our Principles PAC will fight until the last delegate is counted to stop that from happening."
Trump scoffed at the critics Tuesday night, noting that he is expanding the Republican Party by bringing in new voters.
"We're going to be a unified party, and we are going to be a much bigger party," he said.
In six of the states on Tuesday, large majorities of Republican voters said they supported a proposal to temporarily ban all noncitizen Muslims from entering the United States, an idea championed by Trump. Two-thirds of GOP voters in Texas, Virginia and Georgia, 7 in 10 in Tennessee, and nearly 8 in 10 in Alabama supported the proposal, according to the early exit polls.
Worries among Republicans appeared to grow after Trump briefly refused to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during a television interview. Trump later said he had not understood the interviewer who first raised the question about Duke, and he did repudiate him.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday that anyone who wants to be the Republican presidential nominee must reject any racist group or individual.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson also remain in the race, making it harder for a clear anti-Trump candidate to emerge. Kasich is banking on Ohio, which also votes March 15, to push him back into contention.
Rubio is likely to face growing calls for him to quit the race, though he appears to be going nowhere before March 15.
"Florida, I know you're ready," he told several thousand supporters gathered at Miami's Tropical Park. "The pundits say we're underdogs. I'll accept that. We've all been underdogs. This is a community of underdogs. This is a state of underdogs. This is a country of underdogs. But we will win. And when we do — and when we do, we will do what needs to be done."
In a Fox News interview, Rubio bemoaned the crowded GOP field.
"If I didn't have to share the ballot with two or three other people, I would have won," he said.
Polls show Trump leading in most of the next states with looming primary elections: Kentucky on Saturday, Michigan on March 8, and then Florida, Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina on March 15.
Information from the Associated Press and the Miami Herald and was used in this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.