Cruz projected to beat Trump, win Iowa caucuses

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Ted CruzTed CruzBreitbart, liberal activist cooperated on GOP primary disruptions: report Juan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race MORE took first place in the Iowa caucuses on Monday night, beating out Donald TrumpDonald TrumpObama reads mean tweet from Trump on ‘Kimmel’ 5 takeaways from the Pa. Senate debate Report: Clinton ordered operative to troll Trump with duck MORE.

Marco RubioMarco RubioBreitbart, liberal activist cooperated on GOP primary disruptions: report Obama seeks down-ballot gains after being midterm loser Chamber endorses bill to block proposed estate tax rules MORE finished in third place, but his stronger-than-expected showing could be enough to move establishment Republicans to line up swiftly behind him as the candidate with the best shot to take out Trump and Cruz.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Cruz had 28 percent over Trump's 24 percent.

In the night’s biggest surprise, Rubio nearly caught Trump, finishing with 23 percent of the vote, which should give him significant momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9.

Ben Carson, who said he needed a third-place finish to remain viable, finished at a distant fourth place. No other candidate reached 5 percent support.

Iowa will award its 30 delegates proportionately, so none of the candidates has opened up a big lead in the presidential race yet.

However, Cruz’s toppling of Trump is a huge symbolic victory that could severely damage the real estate mogul's campaign.

Trump’s argument to conservative voters has long been that he’s a winner. At campaign rallies, Trump has spent considerable time ticking through his dominant polling numbers, which on Monday night proved to be inflated.

Trump’s second-place finish will reinforce the notion that he does not have a campaign organization in place to turn enthusiasm surrounding his bid into votes.

Still, polls show he has a big lead in New Hampshire, so he’s likely dismiss his Iowa showing as a fluke driven by Cruz’s appeal to evangelicals as the contest moves into mainstream waters.

Trump’s late decision to skip the final GOP debate before the caucuses – many believe he was playing it safe to protect his lead – will receive new scrutiny amid his poorer than expected showing.

Rubio is the other winner on Monday night. Despite a third-place finish, he far outpaced his standing in the RealClearPolitics average of polls and nearly caught Trump.

But perhaps most importantly, Rubio crushed his next closest rival in the establishment lane, Jeb Bush, who is at 3 percent of the vote.

That should set Rubio up nicely heading into New Hampshire as he seeks to be the candidate that mainstream Republicans rally around as they seek to topple the insurgents, Trump and Cruz.

"This is a big night for us, this is better than we did in any public opinion poll," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said on MSNBC.

"It's a lot of momentum,” Conant said. “I think it's a three-person race leaving here. If you don’t want Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to be the nominee, you better get on board with Marco Rubio.”

Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler sought to dismiss Rubio’s strong showing, saying on MSNBC that it is a “two-man race between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.”

“Marco Rubio is going to come in third,” Tyler said. “Coming in first is better than coming in third.”

The results in Iowa put an exclamation point on the anti-establishment sentiment that’s taken hold of the conservative base. The trio of outsiders — Cruz, Trump and Carson — combined to take more two-thirds of the vote.

Updated at 10:30 p.m.