LAS VEGAS (AFP) – Donald Trump stormed to victory in Tuesday’s Republican caucuses in Nevada, giving the billionaire businessman his third straight win in the race for the White House.
With 20 percent of the vote in, TV networks gave Trump 44 percent, with senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas trailing some 20 points behind in a tight race for second.
“This is an amazing night,” Trump told cheering supporters in a victory speech.
The lopsided result underscored the enormous challenge Trump’s rivals face as the candidates head into next week’s all important “Super Tuesday” contests involving 11 states.
As early returns came in, CNN and Fox News had Rubio in second place with about 25 percent of the vote and Cruz in third place with about 22 percent.
Trump said his win was broadly based.
“We won the evangelicals. We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated,” he said.
“I love the poorly educated. We’re the smartest people. We’re the most loyal people.”
The remaining two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Governor John Kasich, lagged far behind in the single digits.
Cruz insisted he was the only candidate who could beat Trump and said he was now setting his sight on next Tuesday’s crucial contests.
“One week from today will be the most important night of this campaign,” he said.
Trump had been all but certain to triumph in Nevada, with the big question being whether Rubio — favoured by mainstream Republicans — could clinch second place.
The contest was the fourth for the Republican presidential candidates, with Trump so far winning in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He came in second in Iowa.
Although the caucus in Nevada is not expected to have a significant impact on the overall race — only 30 delegates or slightly more than one percent of the total are up for grabs — it was the first contest for the Republicans in the US West.
It is also the first test of Republican voter sentiment after Jeb Bush pulled out of the race last week following a poor showing in South Carolina.
All eyes were on whether Rubio and Cruz would be able to slow Trump’s momentum and which of the two candidates would come in second.
“Who is going to be the strongest guy to go against Trump… is going to be more clear after today,” said Dan Lee, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Today we are going to see whether voters are going to move over more in support of Rubio.”
He noted that the Nevada caucus was taking place as mainstream Republicans are grudgingly accepting the fact that Trump may well end up the party’s nominee given his seemingly unstoppable winning streak.
“A lot of Republicans — especially the Republican establishment, professionals, governors — don’t really want Trump to win the nomination,” Lee said.
“They want to get Cruz out and have Rubio go against Trump.”