LAS VEGAS — A Republican presidential contest now controlled by Donald Trump moved to Nevada on Sunday, where leading competitors Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio will take another shot at dethroning the front-runner.
Cruz and Rubio are better organized than Trump in Nevada. That could matter in a low-turnout Tuesday caucus. Cruz has scores of paid staff and volunteers manning phone banks, knocking on doors and holding caucus training sessions in the Silver State. So does Rubio, who has been organizing here longer than any other campaign. The Florida senator's employs much of the Nevada team that elected Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller.
Cruz and Rubio each have support from influential Nevada Republicans. Attorney General Adam Laxalt, popular with conservatives, is backing Cruz. Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison supports Rubio. Heller, who had been supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, endorsed Rubio on Sunday. Both Hutchison and Heller are Mormon. They could have some pull with the signficant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints voting bloc.
But it might not be enough to stop Trump, who enters the short Nevada campaign riding a wave of momentum from his Saturday victory in South Carolina, which comes on the heels of an even bigger win in New Hampshire. Trump, the New York celebrity businessman, hits the trail here on Monday with a rally at a casino arena. He is all but predicting victory.
"I think we're going to do terrific there," Trump said during his South Carolina victory speech.
Public opinion polling in Nevada is notoriously difficult, even when trying to gauge the outcome of conventional elections. It's that much harder for a caucus. Nevada doesn't have a lot of history voting in caucuses, and many GOP voters who might want to participate in the presidential primary process might wake up Wednesday morning and realize they missed their chance.
Yet Republican operatives here expect a Trump win — despite his lack of a real voter turnout operation — just as the RealClearPolitics average suggests. Trump led with 42 percent, followed Cruz, a Texas senator, with 20 percent, and Rubio, a Florida senator, with 19 percent. The other two candidates left in the race, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, were at 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
Carson continues to underperform and Kasich's campaign schedule doesn't show him campaigning in Nevada ahead of Tuesday's caucuses. That leaves Cruz, Rubio and Trump as the candidates competing for the Silver State's 30 nominating delegates. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, dropped out of the race Saturday. He was the only other candidate with a team of talented local operatives who was prepared to compete here, and his exit could boost Rubio.
The independent super PACs supporting Cruz and Rubio have already been on the air in Nevada in preparation for Tuesday's contest. Keep the Promise I, the primary super PAC behind Cruz, expects to spend $2 million in the state. The Rubio super PAC, Conservative Solutions PAC, has declined to reveal how much it intends to spend here, but signaled in a statement it issued Saturday that it plans to invest a lot.
"We expect the race to go on for quite some time," read a statement from the Rubio super PAC. "That starts in Nevada, where Conservative Solutions PAC will continue its efforts right through Tuesday. It then moves to the 11 states that vote on March 1."
Earlier last week, Keep the Promise I revealed its plans. "The people of Nevada will get a firsthand look at Ted Cruz's conservative record," Kellyanne Conway, president of group, said. "Nevada is an important early state and we plan to use every avenue to reach the voters of the state so that they turn out for Senator Cruz."
In Nevada, elections are generally decided by Clark County, home of Las Vegas; and Washoe County in the northern part of the state, home of Reno. But the sparsely populated rural counties also matter. They lean Republican — and libertarian — and are expected to be fertile territory for Cruz. He has been advertising in the state about his support for loosening Washington's yoke on federal lands, which comprise much of Nevada's territory.
Rubio, who spent part of his childhood living in Las Vegas before his family moved back to Miami, is expected to be strong in the suburbs, both north and south. Mormons, who voted overwhelmingly for fellow Church of Latter Day Saints member Mitt Romney in the 2012 Nevada caucus, which he won, could disperse their votes this time around. To that end, Cruz and Rubio are both deployed Mormon supporters to the state to help round up votes.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, is in the state for Cruz. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is in the state for Rubio.