Rubio builds momentum as Cruz campaign shows signs of struggle

ELKO, Nev. - Florida Sen. Marco Rubio amassed increasing support in his effort to establish himself as the main challenger to front-runner Donald Trump as Republican presidential candidates crisscrossed Nevada Monday on the final day of campaigning ahead of the Western state's caucuses.

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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz lost ground in the battle to become the anti-Trump candidate as his campaign showed signs of struggle. Cruz told reporters Monday that he had asked his campaign spokesman, Rick Tyler, to resign for tweeting a story that falsely alleged Rubio had insulted the Bible.

"We are not a campaign that is going to question the faith of another candidate for president," he said, calling Tyler "a good man" and noting that he deleted the tweet once he discovered it was false.

While five men officially remain in the race for the Republican nomination, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy billed it as a two-man contest between Trump and Rubio. Speaking on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Monday, McCarthy said Trump's victory and Rubio's second-place finish in Saturday's South Carolina primary dealt a blow to Cruz's strategy to win the nomination. The California congressman predicted voters in Florida, Rubio's home state, would determine in mid-March whether Rubio continues or Trump easily rolls on to the nomination.

Polls show Trump with a huge lead in the Nevada caucuses, which would give the billionaire businessman a third-straight victory in the state-by-state contests to select delegates to the party's national nominating convention. Cruz faces a critical test on March 1, or Super Tuesday, when primaries are held in multiple states, including his home state of Texas and other southern states.

In the Democratic race, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, vowed to fight on after a narrow loss to Hillary Clinton in Saturday's Nevada caucuses. Clinton pulled ahead of Sanders in the delegate count late Monday, when she eked out the final delegate from the Nevada caucuses, giving her a total of 52 caucus and primary delegates out of the 2,383 needed to win the nomination at the Democratic national convention. Sanders has 51.

Clinton is expected to add to her delegate tally with a win in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, where polls show her with strong support among African-Americans who make up more than half of the Democratic electorate. Sanders held a rally Monday in Massachusetts, one of the Super Tuesday primary states where he is running strongest.

Trump heads into Tuesday's Republican caucuses in Nevada with 67 delegates after sweeping all 50 delegates at stake in South Carolina. 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 after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush quit the race after a disappointing fourth-place finish in South Carolina. Establishment heavyweights have moved to back Rubio, with many saying they see him as the candidate who can unite a disharmonious Republican Party. Since Friday, Rubio has added 12 new Congressional or gubernatorial endorsements, while Trump and Cruz have added none.

Former Sen. Bob Dole told ABC News on Monday that he too had been backing Bush, but he's now supporting Rubio because "he wants to grow the party as opposed to Cruz. I don't know what he wants to grow." Cruz appeals to the party's most conservative wing, but many party leaders fear his uncompromising positions would make him unelectable in the general election.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich showed no signs of quitting the race and picked up the support of one prominent Bush supporter - Tom Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security secretary. Kasich is hoping to make an impact later in March when Midwestern states hold their primaries.

Cruz's campaign on Tuesday once again was accused by rivals of using questionable tactics. Cruz apologized to Republican hopeful Ben Carson earlier this month after his campaign promoted a news story suggesting that the retired neurosurgeon was getting out of the race as the Iowa caucuses were under way.

Speaking during a campaign stop in Elko, Nevada, on Monday, Rubio criticized Cruz for the tweet alleging that the Florida senator had insulted 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.

Trump lashed out at Cruz over Twitter on Monday, saying that Cruz "has now apologized to Marco Rubio and Ben Carson for fraud and dirty tricks. No wonder he has lost Evangelical support!"

Trump was scheduled to hold two rallies Monday in Nevada - one in Elko and another later in Las Vegas.

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Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Washington, Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin; David Eggert in Michigan, Andrew Demillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; and Alanna Durkin, Michael Blood and Matthew Barakat in Virginia contributed to this report.



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