ELKO, Nev. — U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were looking Monday to derail Donald Trump's lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, with an eye toward next week's critical delegate-rich state primary elections and caucuses.
But their sights were not only on Trump. The two challengers were also trying to derail each other's candidacies, and Cruz tried to tamp down a controversy by asking his campaign spokesman to resign for tweeting a story that falsely alleged that Rubio insulted the Bible.
On the Democratic side, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has put up a surprisingly strong grassroots candidacy against former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the favourite of the party establishment, while promising a break-up of the big banks and policies to reverse growing income inequality.
Trump, the billionaire businessman, has swept to the front-runner position in the Republican race despite making statements about minorities, immigrants and his rivals that would have sunk a more traditional candidate.
Trump heads into Tuesday's Republican caucuses in Nevada with 67 delegates after a resounding victory in South Carolina on Saturday. His closest opponents, Cruz and Rubio, have a total of 11 and 10, respectively. It takes 1,237 delegates to capture the nomination.
Rubio is trying to set himself up as the candidate of the party establishment now that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is out of the race. The more conservative Cruz, who worries many in the party establishment, is unlikely to finish above second or third in the coming contests except in his home state.
While five Republicans officially remain in the race, U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy billed it as a two-man contest between Trump and Rubio.
Speaking to MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Monday, McCarthy said Trump's victory and Rubio's second-place finish in South Carolina dealt a blow to Cruz's strategy to win the nomination. McCarthy predicted voters in Rubio's home state of Florida would determine whether Rubio continues in the race or Trump easily rolls on to the nomination.
Cruz on Saturday characterized a two-man contest as well — between him and Trump, but Rubio has repeatedly pushed the notion of a three-man race since the South Carolina primary. Rubio, however, has yet to win a state.
Rubio, meanwhile, lashed out at Cruz and Trump on Monday during a campaign stop in Elko, Nevada, as the Florida senator looks to lower expectations for his own campaign in the state where he spent six years of his childhood.
"Obviously, I have ties to Las Vegas that run deep, given my time growing up here," Rubio said. "I haven't lived here in 25 years; the city has changed a lot. So, we have a lot of friends here and a lot of family, but I'm not sure that's going to be enough to be a determinant factor in the caucus."
He reminded voters that Nevada is just one stop on the primary calendar with upcoming contests throughout March.
Rubio also addressed the latest development in his intensifying feud with Senate colleague Cruz, whose campaign helped promote a video on Sunday that incorrectly suggested Rubio had criticized the Bible.
"It's every single day something comes out of the Cruz campaign that's deceptive and untrue, and in this case goes after my faith," Rubio told reporters when asked about the incident. "I guess one of their spokespersons apologized, and I accept their apology."
On Monday, Cruz asked his campaign spokesman, Rick Tyler, to resign for tweeting the story. Cruz said Tyler is "a good man" and deleted the tweet once he found it was false.
"We are not a campaign that is going to question the faith of another candidate for president," Cruz said.
Cruz apologized to rival Ben Carson earlier this month after his campaign promoted a news story suggesting that Carson was getting out of the race. Cruz's campaign has also acknowledged creating a website that used a computer program to create a fake picture of Rubio shaking hands with President Barack Obama.
Democratic presidential hopefuls kicked off the week on opposite ends of the country Monday. Clinton was fundraising in northern California, while Sanders held a rally in Massachusetts. South Carolina votes in the next Democratic primary on Saturday.
Clinton won a substantial victory Saturday in the Nevada caucuses, where a large majority of black voters supported her, according to entrance polls. That bodes well for her in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina and on so-called Super Tuesday next week, when primaries are held in several southern states where African-Americans make up a large part of the Democratic electorate.
Sanders has yet to prove he can consistently expand his base of support beyond white liberals and young voters. His campaign cited progress with Latinos in Nevada, but his advisers are clear-eyed about the challenges on Super Tuesday, which offers a large haul of delegates who will choose the party's nominee at the national convention in July.
Vivian Salama And Steve Peoples, The Associated Press