With Bush Out, Rubio, Cruz Jostle to Become ‘Alternative-to-Trump’

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) -
Jim Wilson a supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio walks past his truck before a campaign event in Franklin, Tennessee, February 21, 2016. (Chris Keane/Reuters)
Jim Wilson a supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio walks past his truck before a campaign event in Franklin, Tennessee, February 21, 2016. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz battled to emerge as the true anti-Trump on Sunday as the billionaire businessman took an ever-so-brief break from his trademark braggadocio to say his drive for the GOP nomination isn’t unstoppable — yet.

Fresh off a commanding victory in South Carolina, Donald Trump declined to say the nomination was his to lose. But he quickly went on to declare, “I’m really on my way.” Soon enough, in an interview, he was toting up electoral math all the way through Election Day and concluding, “I’m going to win.”

The candidates’ diverging flight plans demonstrated how the campaign spreads out and speeds up now. Nevada’s GOP caucuses are Tuesday, and then a dozen states vote in the March 1 Super Tuesday bonanza.

Cruz headed for Nevada and Trump for Georgia. Rubio embarked on a Tennessee-Arkansas-Nevada trifecta.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton savored her weekend win in the Nevada caucuses as Bernie Sanders acknowledged that while his insurgent campaign has made strides, “at the end of the day … you need delegates.” He looked past Tuesday’s Democratic primary in South Carolina to list Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Oklahoma as places where he has a “good shot” to do well.

Rubio and Cruz used the Sunday morning news shows to spin rosy-road-forward scenarios after results in South Carolina put Trump way up top, with Rubio squeaking past Cruz for second. But with roughly 70 percent of Republicans in national polls declining to back Trump, Cruz and Rubio tried to cast themselves as the one candidate around whom what Rubio calls the “alternative-to-Donald-Trump vote” can coalesce.

Rubio also took an aggressive run at Trump, faulting him for a lack of specifics on policy.

“If you’re running for president of the United States, you can’t just tell people you’re going to make America great again,” he said on CBS.

At a later rally in Franklin, Tennessee, a Nashville suburb, Rubio took note of the smaller GOP field after Jeb Bush’s departure from the race, and celebrated his biggest crowd of the campaign, estimated at more than 3,000 people. Rubio avoided criticizing his GOP rivals, instead highlighting his efforts to help middle-class families.

Cruz, for his part, stressed his conservative bona fides and said he was the lone “strong conservative in this race who can win. We see conservatives continuing to unite behind our campaign,” he told NBC.

With Bush gone from the race, Rubio was hoping to pick off past donors to the Bush campaign and looking to benefit as well from a cessation in the millions of dollars in negative ads run by the Bush campaign and its allies.

Rubio also suggested it was only a matter of time before John Kasich and Ben Carson folded as well. He hinted it would be better to get that winnowing over with, saying, “the sooner we can coalesce, the better we’re going to be as a party in general.”