GOP presidential candidate Ted CruzTed CruzCruz shares 'proof' of basketball skills - with pic of Duke look-alike Cruz introduces bill letting states bar refugees Trump's America: Businessmen in, bureaucrats out MORE established himself on Saturday night as the challenger with the best chance to defeat Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenate committee moving forward with Russia hacking probe Trump must re-engage Africa to halt Chinese inroads Voter fraud allegations reignite squabble MORE, as the Texas senator posted two impressive victories and nearly caught the front-runner in two other states.
“To see strong wins across the board is very encouraging,” Cruz said. “And I think what it represents is Republicans coalescing, saying it would be a disaster for Donald Trump to be our nominee and we’re going to stand behind the strongest conservative in the race.”
On the Democratic side, Bernie SandersBernie SandersVoter fraud allegations reignite squabble Mulvaney vows to give Trump straight talk on entitlements Senate confirms Trump's UN ambassador MORE won the caucuses in Kansas and Nebraska, while Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump clamps down on federal agencies Mellman: First things first? Dems indignant as Comey keeps his job MORE won resoundingly in Louisiana.
Even though Sanders won two of the three states, it won’t do much to change the dynamics of that race, as Clinton still holds a big lead in delegates.
But it was Cruz who was the story of the night, as he bolstered his argument that the Republican presidential race is down to a two-man contest between himself and Trump, the long-time front-runner.
Earlier in the day, Cruz won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C. That poll is unscientific, but generally considered a worthwhile measure of grassroots conservative support.
“The scream you hear, the howl that comes from Washington, D.C. is utter terror at what we the people are doing together,” Cruz said at a campaign rally in Idaho, which will hold its primary on Tuesday.
“We saw the results on Super Tuesday that were extraordinary and then today on Super Saturday we seem to be seeing a continuation of that very same pattern.”
In Kansas, Cruz will take 24 of the 40 delegates. He took 48 percent of the vote, more than doubling up Trump, who finished in second place, at 23 percent.
Cruz did similarly well in Maine, where he established that he has appeal outside of the Bible Belt. Cruz took 45.8 percent support over the billionaire's 32.5 percent, and will take 12 of the states delegates, compared to nine for Trump.
Trump repelled a late charge by Cruz in Louisiana and Kentucky, but his slimmer-than-expected margins will raise questions about his perceived strength.
After Super Tuesday, Trump appeared to be on a glide path to the nomination. Now, he appears to have a legitimate challenger.
The real estate tycoon may have been damaged by a tough week in the spotlight.
He has been embroiled in controversy for initially refusing to disavow white supremacist David Duke, and for alluding to the size of his manhood at the GOP debate on Thursday in Detroit.
Trump has also been under heavy fire from Mitt Romney, who emerged this week with the singular goal of stopping him, and Rubio, who has relentlessly mocked him with personal insults.
Still, Trump entered Saturday with a lead of nearly 100 delegates over Cruz. He has now won 12 states, compared to only six for Cruz.
The states where Trump won on Saturday, Kentucky and Louisiana, had far more delegates at stake than where Cruz won, in Kansas and Maine. It’s still possible that Trump might grow his lead in delegates by the end of the night as numbers continue to come in.
And the map appears to get more difficult for Cruz going forward. He won’t be favored to win either of the first two winner-take-all contests on March 15 in Florida and Ohio.
There, Rubio and John Kasich could be making their last stands. Both men did poorly on Super Saturday and face must-win primaries in their home states, where they face a stiff challenge from Trump.
But Cruz is not ceding Florida to either Cruz or Trump. This week, he opened 10 offices in the Sunshine State.
It was a particularly terrible night for Rubio, who was once viewed as the last great hope for the GOP establishment.
The Florida senator finished in last place in Maine and fell below the threshold to qualify for delegates there, and in Louisiana.
Rubio finished a distant third place in Kansas, despite campaigning heavily in the state and having the support of Gov. Sam Brownback, Sen. Pat RobertsPat RobertsOvernight Finance: Scoop – Trump team eyes dramatic spending cuts | Treasury pick survives stormy hearing Hearing derailed after senator suggests colleague needs Valium Live coverage: Senators grill Trump's Treasury pick MORE and former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole.
Rubio sought to downplay his showing at a press conference in Puerto Rico, which holds its primary on Sunday, saying he’s looking ahead to March 15 in Florida.
“We knew this would be the roughest period of the campaign given the make-up of the electoral map,” Rubio said.
Trump and Cruz both called on Rubio to drop out.
On the Democratic side, Sanders posted two impressive victories on Super Saturday, but Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.
Clinton ran away with Louisiana, where 51 delegates were up for grabs, while there were only 58 delegates at stake total between Nebraska and Kansas, where Sanders won.
Sanders once again performed well in states where the Democratic contests are dominated by white progressives, while Clinton held her dominance in states with large populations of minorities.
Clinton entered the day with a substantial advantage in pledged delegates, leading 610 to 411.
Her campaign noted in an email to reporters that’s a bigger lead than then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaTrump clamps down on federal agencies Overnight Defense: McCain grills Trump's budget pick | Dems seek to limit Trump on nukes | Senators weigh new round of base closures Trump invites Indian PM to White House MORE ever held over her in 2008.
She has an even greater lead among superdelegates, the party leaders who can support anyone regardless of the popular vote.
Clinton will end the day with victories in 11 states against seven for Sanders.
Still, the Vermont senator continues to attract thousands of supporters to his rallies, haul in tens of millions of dollars every month, and is vowing to take the fight all the way to the convention.
Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who is supporting Sanders, tweeted:
"We have won victories tonight in Kansas and Nebraska! We have a path towards victory!"