Billionaire Donald Trump pocketed another – albeit modest – jackpot in Nevada, adding to his growing pile of committed delegates in the high-stakes race for Republican presidential nominee.
But even with three straight wins in the first four states to vote, the New York property magnate has less than 7 per cent of the 1,237 delegates needed to win. The next month will determine whether he builds an insurmountable lead or can be beaten by one of his rivals.
In Nevada on Tuesday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio came a distant second, followed by Texas Senator Ted Cruz in third. The other two Republicans still in the race, Ohio Governor John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, attracted scant support. All of them are looking, desperately, to Super Tuesday on March 1 to vault them back into contention.
"The sooner we can get this race narrowed, I think, the easier it's going to be to stop Donald Trump," Mr. Rubio said, seeking to position himself as the most widely acceptable alternative to the billionaire.
"The majority of Republican voters do not want Donald Trump," he maintained in morning-after interviews on Wednesday. "The problem is that they're divided up among four people … so until there is some consolidation here, you aren't going to have a clear alternative."
Mr. Trump laughs off suggestions that once the field is winnowed, Republicans will rally behind an "anti-Trump" mainstream candidate, such as Mr. Rubio.
"They keep forgetting that when people drop out, we're going to get a lot of votes," Mr. Trump told wildly cheering supporters at a victory rally in Las Vegas not far from the gold-infused glass tower of the Trump International Hotel that glitters above the casino strip.
"We're winning, winning, winning," he said, adding, "Soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning."
Still, Super Tuesday – with 661 delegates at stake in 13 states or five times as many as have been won in the four states to vote so far – will almost certainly recast the race.
By far, the biggest prize – with 155 delegates – is Texas. Each state has its own method of divvying up delegates and all 13 Republican states voting on Super Tuesday use some form of proportionality. But, for instance, if a candidate wins all 36 Texas districts with more than 50 per cent, he could take all 155 delegates.
For Mr. Cruz, who came third in Nevada, a weak showing in his home state will almost certainly end his candidacy; a very strong one could put him in first place. "One week from today will be the most important night of this campaign: Super Tuesday," he told subdued supporters in Nevada.
Mr. Rubio, whose immigrant parents worked for six years in Las Vegas as a maid in the Imperial Palace and bartender at Sam's Town, hoped that his childhood years in Nevada and his fluent Spanish would deliver a better result. He left town before the count was complete.
After finishing third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and then second in South Carolina and Nevada, and ousting his Florida rival, former governor Jeb Bush, which should provide an infusion of money and seasoned political operatives to his team, Mr. Rubio needs to find some states to win.
So does Mr. Kasich, currently lagging a distant fourth but looking to win his home state of Ohio, which has "winner-take-all" rules awarding 66 delegates, later in March.
Mr. Trump's triumph, his third straight victory in states as varied as New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, underscores the power of his appeal to voters fed up with politics as usual and unfazed by some of his sometimes offensive rhetoric and outrageous positions.
An unofficial delegate count after Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, compiled by The Associated Press, shows Mr. Trump with 81, followed by Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio with 17 each. Mr. Kasich has six delegates and Mr. Carson has four.
In Nevada, Mr. Trump posted his biggest percentage win yet with the backing of 45 per cent of Republicans who gathered for evening caucuses across the Silver State on Tuesday night. Mr. Rubio received 24 per cent; Mr. Cruz 21 per cent; Mr. Carson 5 per cent; and Mr. Kasich 4 per cent.