Georgia hands Trump his biggest win yet

Republican Donald Trump surged to a victory Tuesday in Georgia, notching his biggest win yet and again defying party establishment figures who have so far fruitlessly tried to halt his march to the nomination.

The billionaire was set to get the bulk of the 76 delegates up for grabs in Georgia, the second-biggest trove of the sweep of states that held primaries or caucuses Tuesday. The closer race was the GOP contest for second place that pit Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio against Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Trump had long held leads in the polls in Georgia, and the networks and The Associated Press called the race shortly after voting ended at 7 p.m. Georgia was the first of a sweep of states Trump won on Tuesday spanning from Alabama to Massachusetts as he consolidated his lead in the race to be the party’s standard-bearer.

The Peach State was at the center of a swath of seven Southern states that voted Tuesday, though a range of other states from Alaska to Vermont also held primaries and caucuses. And Georgia was also perhaps the most important in the GOP field, since Cruz handily won his home state of Texas.

Trump, an outsider who has upended the Republican race for president, has turned the nomination contest into a tour de force. After a narrow defeat to Cruz in Iowa, he’s rattled off victories in disparate parts of the country: fiercely independent New Hampshire, libertarian-minded Nevada and culturally conservative South Carolina.

With his victory in Georgia, he can now add his biggest take to date. He cobbled together a coalition of tea party adherents, religious evangelicals and conservative suburbanites peeved at what they view as Washington gridlock and inspired by his message as an anti-establishment political newcomer.

“I think he’s really the only person that can make a change,” said Julian Moye, a Sandy Springs voter who backed Trump. “I think everybody else is already Washington-oriented, and something’s got to change. I feel as though he’s the only one who can really make a difference.”

The biggest question of the night was whether Trump’s edge in the race for delegates had become insurmountable. And while Trump, during a press conference Tuesday night, dodged a question about whether he was now the presumptive nominee, he urged Rubio to drop out of the race and cast his attention toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“I’m a unifier. I know people are going to find that a little hard to believe. Once we get all of that finished, we’re going to go after one person, and that’s Hillary Clinton,” he said. “And, frankly, I think that’s an easy race.”

Cruz and Rubio were locked in a fight for second place — and to clear a crucial threshold. Georgia’s Republican rules award delegates to candidates only if they finish in the top two in any of the state’s 14 congressional districts or if they reach 20 percent of the statewide vote. Both appeared poised to surpass that mark.

“I don’t know that Cruz will necessarily be able to turn things around, I don’t know that Trump will be able to turn things around,” said Josh Nealey, a Cruz supporter in Valdosta. “But at least some of the things that they stand for make me feel a little bit better about where things are going.”

Rubio, who visited Georgia twice in the final four days of the race, sharpened his attacks on Trump with rallies in Buckhead and Kennesaw that cast the billionaire as a “con artist” who is trying to fool Republicans. He tried to pick off enough delegates to stay competitive in the race, with an eye on the March 15 vote in his home state of Florida.

“His numbers are going down. Our numbers are going up,” Rubio said of Trump. “And two weeks from tonight, right here in Florida, we’re going to send a message loud and clear — we’re going to send the message that the party of Lincoln and Reagan, the presidency of the United States, will not be held by a con artist.”

Yet Rubio faces new questions about his viability as a candidate. He went winless in the first four contests, and by late Tuesday he had scored only one win in 11 races, notching a victory in Minnesota.

For Cruz, Georgia and other Southern states were supposed to be a bulwark of support. But instead, Trump and Rubio siphoned off evangelicals who made up the Texas senator’s voter base. In his Tuesday evening speech — he won both Texas and Oklahoma — he said he was the only true conservative in the race.

“If you’re angry with Washington, I understand,” he said. “But Donald Trump has been part of the Washington corruption for 40 years.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson both hovered in the single-digits despite late visits to the state.

Trump leveraged his strong showing in polls in Georgia with multiple visits in the final days before the vote. He attracted more than 6,300 people to a downtown Atlanta rally last week, and he returned Monday for an event at Valdosta State University that drew more than 7,500 people.

Exit polls from CNN showed Trump leading in almost every category of voter, including college graduates, wealthier households and religious conservatives. Roughly two-thirds of Georgia Republican voters supported Trump’s call to temporarily ban all Muslims who are not citizens from entering the U.S.

Looming large are the spate of big states that cast ballots in two weeks. Along with Florida, voters in Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio vote that day. Those are “winner takes all” states, meaning the trove of delegates up for grabs goes only to the top finisher.

“The hopes for Rubio and Cruz are fading fast,” said Dan Franklin, a Georgia State University political scientist. “Unless there are big surprises, all they’ll be able to say is that they’ll continue to stay in the race for another few weeks. Because the Republicans are on the clock.”

Trump, in his victory speech Tuesday in Florida, said he expects to camp out in the Sunshine State over the next two weeks.

“We’re going to go to Florida,” Trump said. “We’re going to spend so much time in Florida.”

Staff writer Laura Diaz contributed to this article.

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