WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Businessman Donald Trump inched closer to the U.S. Republican presidential nomination after easily outdistancing his rivals in the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday, giving him his third win in four early nominating contests.
Trump won Nevada by a margin of 22 percentage points, garnering 45.9 per cent of the vote, the state Republican Party said after 100 per cent of all precincts reported results. That gave him at least 12 of the 30 delegates at stake, which would bring his total to at least 79 before February ends, according to the Associated Press.
While more than 1,200 are needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination, Trump has built a formidable head start over his main rivals, US senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Rubio eked out another second-place showing with 23.9 per cent of the vote, and Cruz again came in a close third with 21.4 pe rcent. Each gained at least five delegates, the AP reported.
Finishing at the bottom of the heap were retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson with 4.8 per cent of the vote and Ohio Governor John Kasich with 3.6 per cent.
Broadcast networks called Nevada for Trump almost immediately after voting ended, with the state Republican Party confirming the victory soon afterward.
'WINNING, WINNING, WINNING'
Trump's decisive win is likely to further frustrate Republican establishment figures who, less than a month ago, were hoping that the outspoken billionaire's insurgent candidacy was stalled after he lost the opening nominating contest in Iowa to Cruz.
But since then, Trump has tallied wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and now Nevada, with a suite of southern states ahead on March 1, so-called Super Tuesday.
"If you listen to the pundits, we weren't expected to win too much, and now we're winning, winning, winning the country,"Trump said at a victory rally in Las Vegas.
Polls suggest Trump will do well in many of those Super Tuesday states, placing further pressure on Cruz and Rubio, as well as Carson and Kasich, who were not factors in Nevada. "These guys have to figure out how to turn their fire on Trump," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist in Washington. Absent that, he said: "Which one is going to get out of this field?"
PLAYING FOR SECOND
In the run-up to Nevada, most of Trump's rivals left him alone, preferring to tussle with each other to try to be the last surviving challenger to the front-runner.
Not long after Trump's win was certified in Nevada, Cruz's campaign released a statement criticizing Rubio for not winning the state. It did not mention Trump at all.
Rubio, who has emerged as the Republican establishment's favorite to derail Trump's progress, can take some solace in finishing second. But that also has to be viewed as somewhat of a setback considering that he had frequently campaigned in Nevada, having lived there for years as a child. A Cuban-American, he had attempted to rally the support of the state's large Latino population.
Rubio had also benefited from Saturday's departure of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush from the race. That brought an influx of new funds, a bevy of endorsements and a wealth of media attention. But none of it was enough to overtake Trump.
Meanwhile, Cruz has been facing mounting questions about the viability of his campaign since he won in Iowa. Trump has made serious inroads among his core base of conservative supporters, draining anti-government hardliners and evangelicals.
Cruz targeted Nevada's fierce libertarian wing, appealing directly to those who supported local rancher Cliven Bundy's armed protest against the federal government in 2014 and a more recent one that Bundy's sons staged at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. But that, too, was not enough.
The upcoming March 1 primary in Cruz's home state of Texas is looming as a make-or-break moment for him.
Aiding his cause, Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott endorsed Cruz in a video that appeared on Wednesday, CNN reported.
Despite early reports on social media of procedural irregularities at many Nevada caucus sites, the Republican National Committee and the party's state chapter said voting ran smoothly. Higher-than-normal turnout was reported, although historically, few of the state's citizens take part.
Nevada's contest had been viewed as a test of whether Trump had organizational might to match his star power. Unlike in primaries, caucus results depend more on a campaign's success in motivating supporters to participate. Trump's failure to do that in Iowa was viewed as contributing to his defeat there.