Ahead of the opening of the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz blasted each other with caustic remarks to the press and at rallies in Las Vegas, while Marco Rubio — who is seen by many in the Republican Party as their last shot at an establishment candidate — was largely left out of the fray.
Following his wins in South Carolina and New Hampshire, Trump is predicted to also take the Silver State after votes from the first-in-the-West caucuses roll in this evening. A CNN/ORC poll last week put the billionaire businessman at least 26 points ahead of both Cruz and Rubio. The results from Nevada may also very well prompt Ben Carson and John Kasich to drop out of the race after each earned only a little more than 7 percent of the vote in South Carolina. They are effectively playing the role of spoilers in this contest, with Carson claiming votes from Cruz's evangelical base while Kasich attracts moderates who might otherwise have supported Rubio.
On Monday night, Trump's momentum seemed to follow him to Las Vegas, where he delivered a rhapsodic 45-minute speech in an arena at the South Point Hotel and Casino that drew some 12,000 people, according to his campaign. The crowd cheered, jeered, and howled insults on cue as Trump recited his list of campaign proposals, including building a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants ("It's going to happen, folks"), his recent public spat with the pope ("I want to use [the Vatican's wall] as a model for my wall"), and Cruz ("This guy lies more than any human I've ever met!").
Trump focused his invective on Cruz at the rally in an effort to undercut his main rival on the right, while sparing Rubio. He instead surprised some in the crowd by calling the Florida senator a "nice guy." The compliment came at the opening of an anecdote in which Trump expressed gratitude that Rubio had provided "cover" at the last debate when he also called Cruz a liar.
Trump continued the provocative tirade about Cruz by trumpeting his confidence that he'll do well in Cruz's home state of Texas on Super Tuesday, when the state will hold its primary along with 14 other states and territories.
"I think we're going to do very well in Texas," Trump said. "Because you know the evangelicals were supposed to go with Cruz.… But you know what, I won the evangelicals by a lot. Actually, I won everything.… The evangelicals did not vote for him. You know why? Because they don't like liars."
"This guy is sick," he added reproachfully. "There's something wrong with this guy."
Cruz's camp brushed off the insults.
"I missed the part where Donald challenges our facts?" a Cruz spokeswoman later told CNN. "He can't, because our ads are true — he is not a real conservative. He can't defend his record, so like a frustrated child, he resorts to name calling."
Earlier in the day, Cruz held a smaller and more sedate event at a YMCA in northern Las Vegas, where he promoted his background in constitutional law and experience as a clerk at the US Supreme Court. After protesters who support federal ownership of public land interrupted the rally and were swiftly ejected, Cruz made a point of contrasting his position on the issue with Trump's, who does not favor the transfer of ownership of federal lands to private or state interests.
Cruz did not mention Rubio in his speech Monday, even though they are battling one another for second place in Nevada. This might have been due to sensitivity over an earlier incident involving his former chief spokesman, Rick Tyler, who posted a video that misquoted Rubio saying of the Bible, "Not many answers in it." (He had said, "All the answers are in there.")
The spokesman later apologized, but Cruz fired him anyway on Monday, saying his campaign does not question the faith of other candidates.
Meanwhile, Rubio presided over a swanky affair the morning of the caucuses at a pavilion at the Silverton Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where guests were greeted with breakfast snacks, chandeliers made of deer antlers, and Christian country-rock music. He was accompanied by former Nevada Governor Robert List and Nevada Senator Becky Harris, who have endorsed him. On Sunday, he scored another key Nevadan endorsement from Senator Dean Heller, who switched allegiances following Jeb Bush's departure following his poor showing in the South Carolina primary. On Monday, the Florida senator racked up more support from other Republican establishment figures, including Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and former presidential candidate Bob Dole.
Rubio pitched himself as a figure capable of uniting the party, while throwing some veiled shade at Trump.
"Frustration is not a plan, being angry is not a plan," Rubio said. "This election can't just be about making a point. It can't just be about electing the loudest person in the room, because that alone will not solve the problem."
In the homestretch, the Republican Party's top runners each made impassioned bids to beef up voter turnout and rustle up donations.
For Republicans, the effort to rally people to vote last minute was a tougher task than for Democrats, who were assisted by the availability of same-day registration when the party held its caucuses on Saturday morning. Before those caucuses, the Democratic Party pre-registered 31,000 Nevadans, but saw a much larger turnout with some 84,000 showing up to vote on the day, according to the state party.
The GOP, which does not have same-day registration, has had to work extra hard to secure and register voters ahead of time. Ahead of the general election, it is working alongside groups like Engage Nevada, a conservative nonprofit looking to expand the GOP's voter base. The Nevada Republican party Monday confirmed it had pre-registered 32,575 voters before the deadline on February 13, a figure close to the total 2012 participation of 32,963.
"The state is a lot more fluid, it's a lot more secular, it's a lot more diverse than other places," Jack St. Martin, president of Engage Nevada, said. "It's the true American West in the sense that it's wide open. Very few people are born here and that translates to politics in an interesting way. It also makes it unpredictable."