Cruz, Rubio scramble to catch Trump ahead of Super Tuesday

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz speak at the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates in Houston, Texas. Photo by Mike Stone/Reuters

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz speak at the debate sponsored by CNN for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential candidates in Houston, Texas. Photo by Mike Stone/Reuters

ATLANTA — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio continue to swing at Donald Trump ahead of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries that could help the Republican front-runner expand his delegate lead in an increasingly caustic nomination fight.

From Rubio mocking “Hair Force One” to Cruz dismissing Trump’s wealth as a result of “picking the right Daddy” and suggesting the billionaire has business ties to the Mafia, the two first-term senators have unleashed a personal and policy-based barrage. And they’re using the Sunday talk show circuit to warn that nominating Trump would be catastrophic for the party in November and beyond.

“We’re about to lose the conservative movement to someone who’s not a conservative and (lose) the party of Lincoln and Reagan to a con artist,” Rubio said Sunday on Fox News.

Trump, for his part, relishes his position, mocking the Republican establishment and his flailing rivals ahead of a glut of Tuesday primaries that offer up almost a quarter of the GOP’s total delegate count.

“It’s amazing what’s going on,” he told NBC, calling his campaign a “movement.”

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton received another burst of momentum Saturday after her lopsided victory in South Carolina, fueled by an 84-16 advantage among African-Americans, a key Democratic constituency that will also play a dominant role in several Super Tuesday states.

“We got decimated, that’s what happened,” Sanders said on ABC, though he promised to continue his campaign against what he describes as a political and economic oligarchy.

On CNN, Trump explained his own brand of populism. “I’m representing a lot of anger out there,” he said on CNN. “We’re not angry people, but we’re angry at the way this country’s being run (and) angry at the way the Republican Party is being run.”

Trump also rejected calls from Rubio – who he repeatedly referred to Sunday as “Little Marco” – and Cruz to release his tax returns, saying he can’t share returns that are under IRS audit. The senators on Saturday released summary pages of several years’ worth of their personal returns. Trump says he’s already shared his personal financial details in separate disclosure forms.

“You can’t tell much from tax returns” anyway, Trump said on CNN.

Trump sidestepped questions about former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke this week urging his followers that a vote against Trump is a “treason to you heritage.”

Asked whether he wanted to explicitly reject Duke’s backing, Trump said, “I don’t know, did he endorse me or what’s going on, because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists.”

Separately, Cruz warned conservatives that the “Trump train” could become “unstoppable” if he rolls to big victories Tuesday. Cruz cast Trump as a carbon copy of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and suggested that not even Trump “knows what he would do” as president.

Tuesday, Cruz said, “is a battle to determine where conservatives go.”

Rubio added on CBS that Trump “is trying to pull off the biggest scam in American political history.”

Still, Cruz confirmed to CNN’s Jake Tapper that he “will support the Republican nominee, period, the end.” Rubio has recently sidestepped questions about whether he would support Trump, insisting that the first-time candidate will not win the nomination.

The line-up Tuesday includes several Southern states that form the core of Cruz’s desired path to the nomination, but he finds himself trailing Trump everywhere but his home state of Texas. Rubio does not lead anywhere, leaving the two senators mostly to scramble for second-place finishes and as many delegates as possible.

“I’ve been an underdog my whole life both in life and in politics and we’re going to do well. We’re going to pick up a lot of delegates,” Rubio said on CBS. “We’re going to be in as many states as it takes to ensure that I’m the nominee.”

Both Rubio and a fourth candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, are looking ahead to home state primaries on March 15. Kasich admitted Sunday on NBC that “if I don’t win Ohio, then, you know, ballgame over.”

Among Democrats, South Carolina was a moment for Clinton to wipe away bitter memories of her loss to Barack Obama there eight years ago. She won the support of nearly 9 in 10 black voters, crucial Democratic backers who had abandoned her for Obama in 2008. Clinton picked up most of South Carolina’s 53 delegates, winning 39 to Sanders’ 14.

Sanders, expecting defeat on Saturday, left the state before voting finished and turned his attention to states outside the South that vote in next Tuesday’s contests.

On ABC, Sanders noted that he still garnered strong support from voters under the age of 30, and he predicted he would fare better overall in Super Tuesday states like Minnesota, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and his native Vermont. All have much whiter electorates than South Carolina and other Southern states that vote in March.