Texas Senator Ted Cruz won a resounding victory in Kansas' Republican Caucus and took Maine on Saturday, making an emphatic case for being his party's alternative to Donald Trump, who still maintains his status as the GOP front runner despite fierce opposition from within the Republican Party.
Separately, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won Kansas against presumptive Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton, and also topped the former Secretary of State in Nebraska. Clinton scored her sole victory of the day with a win in Louisiana, but holds a commanding lead in the current delegate count.
Cruz also prevailed against Trump in Maine, but like Clinton, the billionaire is also ahead in delegates. Trump narrowly won Louisiana and Kentucky, where the final count went down to the wire late in the evening. A test of Cruz's momentum will come in Michigan on Tuesday, where Trump holds a commanding lead in polls there.
Republican and Democratic voters across five states went to the polls on Saturday, casting their votes in a contest that was initially expected to boost the fortunes of Trump and Clinton in their quests to be the standard bearers of their respective parties.
Yet it was Cruz who emerged victorious from the Kansas vote, trouncing the New York billionaire by 25 points and poised to walk away with most of the states 40 delegates. The Texas Republican has been trying to outmaneuver the crowded GOP field to position himself as the most credible alternative to Trump, and pulled in more than double Trump's votes in his Kansas win.
Adding to his momentum, Cruz also won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the grassroots conference that often fetes—and sometimes roasts— Republican candidates. Trump opted to skip the gathering at the last minute.
"If you don't want Donald trump to win the nomination then come join us," Cruz told CPAC's attendees. "We are building a group of followers who are lovers of the Constitution."
By most indications, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, also trying to make his case to be Trump's primary GOP foil, appeared to have a rough night. He came in a distant third in the Kansas vote, fourth in Maine, and was locked in a struggle for third place in Kentucky.
With a total of 155 delegates at stake in Saturday's round, initial results from Kentucky and Maine Republican caucuses were too close to call, though Trump seemed to have an edge in the Bluegrass State and Louisiana. Democratic caucus results in Kansas were also too early to call, with a total of 125 delegates up for grabs in 3 separate races for Clinton and Sanders—an insurgent candidate who's pulled off surprising wins since voting began.
After decisive wins on Super Tuesday, the real estate mogul holds a substantial but not insurmountable delegate lead over his chief competitors for the GOP nomination, Rubio and Cruz. Saturday's initial results were seen as a test of whether the forces arrayed against Trump from within the Republican establishment, and the relentless attacks from his opponents, will dent his appeal among primary and caucus voters.
Trump has won the overwhelming majority of the early voting states, riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that has sent primary and caucus participation surging. However, Trump has also come under withering assault from Republican party figures that are calling upon primary voters to reject his candidacy.
"Everyone's trying to figure out how to stop Trump," the billionaire said at an afternoon rally in Orlando, Florida that reporters say was interrupted frequently by protesters.
At an earlier campaign swing through Kansas, Trump warned that "Republicans are eating their own. They've got to be very careful. "We have to bring things together."
Separately, the comparatively less contentious Democratic contest has seen Clinton successfully stave off a challenge from Sanders.
The former Secretary of State has been come under withering scrutiny over an email server she used while at the State Department, but remains the prohibitive favorite to be her party's standard-bearer in November. Lingering questions about her ties to Wall Street have also weighed on Clinton's candidacy, while giving Sanders' ballast and more credibility with progressive voters.
Trump dominates in both the polls and amassed delegates, but Rubio and Cruz—both Cuban-Americans—are vying to become the standard bearers of the anti-Trump faction of the party. At least for now, Trump has the edge in delegates won, 331 according to an NBC News count, but is far short of the 1,237 required to win the nomination outright.
Rubio and Cruz have sought to slow Trump's momentum, resulting in days of heated campaign rhetoric and no-holds-barred face-offs during recent debates.