Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton remained the frontrunners in the 2016 quest for the White House, but Senators Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders scored key victories in the latest contests.
Republican Trump and Democrat Clinton both won in the delegate-rich state of Louisiana on Saturday, keeping them on top at a critical point in the US presidential race.
Results from votes in five states were split, but one element was clear: Republican Cruz boosted his claim as the most viable alternative to billionaire Trump after taking Kansas and Maine and put poorly performing Senator Marco Rubio under immense pressure to turn his campaign around or bow out.
And two Sanders victories showed that the self-described Democratic Socialist can stay in the race despite the long odds of defeating Clinton.
Cruz and Sanders can also claim momentum as they head towards critical races in Michigan tomorrow, and then winner-take-all races in the large states of Florida and Ohio on March 15.
“Thank you to Louisiana, and thank you to Kentucky,” Trump said in Florida, minutes after he won in Kentucky, where he led Cruz by four percentage points.
The races were the first test of whether the Republican establishment’s desperate effort to halt Trump, led this week by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, is having any effect.
Trump declared those efforts a failure, and called on Rubio, once seen as the best hope to defeat him, to quit.
“Personally I’d call for him [Rubio] to drop out of the race,” Trump said.
“I would love to be able to take on Ted one on one. That will be easy.” Trump is well ahead in the all-important delegate count for Republicans, having won 12 of the 19 states that have voted up to now.
But the strong showing by Cruz – who won more delegates than Trump on Saturday – indicates that the brash real estate mogul is not the inevitable nominee.
The arch-conservative Texas senator performed beyond expectations in Kansas, where he earned 48.2% support, doubling up on Trump who received 23.3%. Rubio was third at 16.7, followed by Ohio Governor John Kasich with 10.7%.
In Maine, it was a startling 13-point win for Cruz in the more moderate New England region. Centrist candidate Romney won Maine caucuses twice, in 2012 and 2008, but it was a disaster for the current establishment favourite Rubio, who finished fourth.
The Republican race has been winnowed to four men: political outsiders Trump and Cruz, and more mainstream candidates Rubio and Kasich.
Many in the Republican establishment are apoplectic over Trump’s frontrunner status.
Democrat Sanders savoured victories in Kansas and Nebraska, pushing his total to seven victories in 18 contests. “We’ve got the momentum, the energy and the excitement that will take us all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia,” Sanders said.
But Clinton decisively swept Louisiana, the weekend’s big prize, with 59 Democratic delegates at stake compared to 37 for Kansas and 25 for Nebraska.
She dominated in Louisiana, a state with a substantial African-American vote. Sanders did well in the other two states in part because of their substantial white populations, a demographic with which he does well. Maine, also overwhelmingly white, held its Democratic caucus yesterday.