WASHINGTON (AFP) - Five more states including Louisiana and Kansas began voting Saturday in the hotly contested White House primary race, with Republican challengers like Marco Rubio desperate to cut into Donald Trump’s lead.
The contests will provide the first test of whether the Republican establishment’s desperate effort to end the inevitability of his drive to the party’s nomination is having any effect among voters.
The brash billionaire is ahead in the all-important delegate count for the Republicans, having won 10 of the 15 states that have voted to date in the process that determines the nominees for both parties.
Hillary Clinton is well ahead of rival Senator Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, hoping to expand her lead as she inches closer to securing the nomination.
Clinton and Sanders do battle Saturday in Kansas, Louisiana and Nebraska, while the Republicans are contesting Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine.
The former secretary of state is expected to dominate in Louisiana, the weekend’s biggest prize, because of its large African-American vote.
But Sanders could bounce back in the other two states – plus Maine, which holds its Democratic caucus Sunday – because they have largely white populations, a demographic with which Sanders has done well.
The GOP race has been winnowed down to four candidates – the political outsider Trump, Florida’s Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Governor John Kasich – with many in the Republican establishment in virtual panic over whether anyone can stop Trump’s march to the nomination.
Saturday’s races are wedged between far more consequential contests: the dozen states that voted on “Super Tuesday” March 1 and the big battles on March 15, when many Republican races, including in Rubio’s Florida and Kasich’s Ohio, become winner-take-all affairs.
Trump made waves when he cancelled a scheduled Saturday morning appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, opting instead to hold a rally in Wichita, Kansas.
The move angered members of the American Conservative Union which hosts CPAC.
“I think it was a big mistake for Donald Trump not to be here,” ACU chairman Matt Schlapp told CNN.
Trump told the Wichita crowd that Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee who on Thursday called Trump “a fraud,” was a “loser” who should have defeated President Barack Obama.
“It’s the establishment. The establishment is against us,” Trump said.
“We’re going to change things so badly and so quickly, it’s going to go so fast, and you’re going to be so proud.”
Cruz, who won his home state of Texas and three others, later ventured to the same Wichita venue to rally his supporters.
“We are here because our country is in crisis... and we want our country back,” he said, using what has become a common Republican refrain after seven years of the Obama presidency.
Military and economic morale has been “plummeting,” he added.
“You want to unleash incredible jobs? Take the boot of the federal government off the necks and backs of small businesses.”
Cruz largely held his fire against Trump, but Rubio issued a forceful repudiation of the frontrunner, challenging him, like many Republicans have, on Trump’s conservative credentials.
Young Americans will not be able to fulfill their potential and destiny, Rubio said in an address to CPAC, “if the conservative movement is hijacked by someone that’s not a conservative.”
With Trump’s challengers insisting they are in it for the long haul, there is a chance no candidate will rack up the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination before the convention in July.
That would mean a contested or “brokered” convention, a scenario that could turn chaotic, especially if establishment figures seek to somehow actively prevent delegates from coalescing around Trump.
There are 155 delegates at stake in Saturday’s Republican races.
Heading into Saturday, Trump leads the field with 329 delegates, followed by Cruz with 231 and Rubio with 110. Kasich trails with 25.
In a further sign of tensions surrounding Trump’s rise, his Friday night rally in New Orleans, Louisiana saw skirmishes inside and outside the venue.
“This is what hate looks like,” a protester screamed as he pointed to the rally venue, in video footage posted by The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Another protester held a sign that read “Return of the Fuher,” an apparent reference to Adolf Hitler.
“You spelled ‘fuhrer’ wrong,” a Trump supporter yelled.
“You’re voting wrong!” the woman shot back.
The Kansas City Star reported big lines Saturday at caucus sites in the state, as well as enthusiastic Republican voters. Democrats were to caucus later in the day.