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u.s. election 2016

Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz during the Republican presidential primary debate in Houston, Feb. 25, 2016.ERIC THAYER/The New York Times

Super Tuesday: It sounds like a sales event at Canadian Tire. Some American commentators, noting that so many of next week's American political tests are in states where Southeastern Conference college football teams are located, have dubbed it the SEC Primary. But by any name, what voters in a dozen states will do on March 1 will have significant bearing on the 2016 race for the White House.

Since 1988, Super Tuesday has been the most consequential date in American presidential-nomination politics. For Democrats this year, it is the moment when former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton hopes to show that she is a national contender with broad appeal rather than a one-theme candidate with narrow ideological allure. But for Republicans, Super Tuesday could be far more important: the defining moment for the entire nomination struggle.

The historical irony is that Super Tuesday was created not to shape the Republican presidential contest but to give form to Democratic presidential races.

Its prominence dates to 1988, when the Democrats were in retreat after losing four of the five previous presidential elections, and when party leaders noted that the fifth was won by a Democratic presidential candidate – Jimmy Carter. The former Georgia governor, who spoke with a distinct Southern accent and, despite a Naval Academy pedigree, had an unmistakable Southern identity. Frantic that the region, once known as the Solid South for its century-long tradition of siding with the Democrats, was slipping into Republican hands, party leaders loaded up Super Tuesday with Southern states. Their calculation was that the outsized influence of the Old Confederacy would prompt the party to nominate a candidate who would appeal to the region and would have a moderate outlook. This was one of those best-laid plans that went awry. In Super Tuesday, 1988, the vote was split among multiple candidates and the nomination eventually went to a liberal Democrat from the Northeast, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.

Now, Super Tuesday has the potential to shape or – and this is the desperate hope of Donald Trump's four remaining rivals – to reshape the Republican race.

About one-quarter of the convention delegates required to capture the GOP nomination are at stake in Tuesday's primaries and caucuses. And Mr. Trump will be riding a jolt of momentum from the surprise endorsement Friday by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a one-time Republican presidential candidate himself, as he faces Super Tuesday tests in a broad assortment of states. Mr. Christie and Mr. Trump cited a heretofore unknown long friendship the two said they shared, but it was clear that their shared contempt for Senator Marco Rubio was the principal motivation. Mr. Christie described Mr. Rubio's comportment at this week's debate as "desperate" and dismissed him for running what he called a "losing campaign."

The tests Mr. Trump faces range from Massachusetts in the East, which has a tradition of moderate Republican governors as antidote to its deeply liberal Democrats in the Kennedy mould; to the border state of Virginia, which may be changing from Republican red to Democratic blue; to the Deep South states of Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, which have shed their decades-long Democratic pasts and now are populated with devoutly conservative Republicans. (These three states account for a 3-0 Republican advantage in governor's chairs, a 6-0 Republican advantage in Senate seats and a 15-1 Republican advantage in House of Representative seats.)

These contests, too, provide a broad test of Mr. Rubio's theory that he's the most electable Republican, and that he's the best (and last) chance to prevent Mr. Trump from winning the party's nomination. The pitch from the Florida senator is that he's less alienating than Mr. Trump, whose argot is the incendiary, the insurrectionary and the insult, and more reasonable than Senator Ted Cruz, who among the remaining candidates leans farthest to the right.

But perhaps most important is that the Super Tuesday contests include Texas. The state produced the last two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, both with the whiff of Establishment mannerisms (think J. Crew suits and tennis-club backhands) and impeccable Establishment credentials (prep-school social customs from Phillips Andover in Massachusetts, university degrees from Yale in Connecticut and the telling tendency, rooted in their coastal Maine retreat, to use the word "summer" as a verb).

Now, Texas is represented in the Senate by Mr. Cruz, who marks a sharp departure from tradition. He's an Alberta-born Cuban-American, fortified with degrees from Princeton and Harvard, a fervent believer in a strict interpretation of the 1789 Constitution and the consensus choice as the most unpopular among his Senate colleagues. With his rough style and inability to forge political alliances, he lacks the political élan of the Bushes or even the Hill Country style of fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, who was smooth but smarmy. As Mr. Trump repeatedly points out, Mr. Cruz was not born in Texas. But both of the Bushes were born in New England, and besides, Texas is full of immigrants, as Mr. Trump, who wants to build a wall there, understands well.

But why the emphasis on Texas?

That's the place where Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump go face-to-face in competition for the 155 convention delegates at stake – about an eighth of those required to win the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Cruz has long counted the Lone Star State as a dependable redoubt. In Thursday night's debate, Mr. Trump boasted of being ahead in Mr. Cruz's home state, though most polls show Mr. Cruz with a sure but not substantial lead, and the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls shows Mr. Cruz leading by 7.2 percentage points. Both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump know that a Cruz defeat in Texas would be a devastating blow, which is why Alamo and "last stand" metaphors are flying around Texas like so many cackling geese.

Thursday night's televised debate at the University of Houston left Governor John Kasich of Ohio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Maryland as afterthoughts, perhaps because, in the Super Tuesday contests, that's exactly what they are.

Dr. Carson even begged his rivals to attack him so he would have the right to respond to them and thus have some television time. But Dr. Carson, once considered a formidable force, is now a blip in the polls and has no prospect of winning any state and little prospect of winning any delegates.

Mr. Kasich ordinarily might be considered a threat to win Massachusetts, where governors from Francis Sargent (in office 1969-1975) to William Weld (1991-1997) to current chief executive Charlie Baker (elected 2014) had political profiles almost identical to that of Mr. Kasich, who in fact already has been endorsed by Mr. Weld. The Boston Globe, the most prominent news outlet in the state, endorsed Mr. Kasich in January for the primary in neighbouring New Hampshire, where the Globe circulates, but the newspaper is reviled among conservatives as the foundation stone of the liberal establishment. Mr. Trump holds a commanding lead in the state, with an advantage of 21 points in one recent poll and 34 in another.

Increasingly, Republicans – some in hope, others in horror – believe that Mr. Trump cannot be stopped in his drive to the nomination at the party's midsummer convention in Cleveland.

Perhaps in truth, but more likely as a political gambit, Mr. Rubio's camp indicated this week that it is preparing for a brokered convention, where backroom deals would break a deadlock among delegates. This is itself a Republican tradition, for the phrase "smoke-filled room" dates to the notion that the 1920 GOP nomination was delivered to Warren Harding amid the smoky environs of a fourth-floor room at Chicago's Blackstone Hotel.

But when the smoke clears from Super Tuesday, it may be apparent that the Republican presidential nomination is all but determined, and that no additional smoke alarms need be ordered on the shores of Lake Erie in July. Super Tuesday 2016 has the potential of clearing the way to a presidential nomination, just as the Democratic architects of the event hoped it would.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

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