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Marco Rubio could not have put it better when he described himself as an “underdog” after his underwhelming performance on Super Tuesday.
The Florida senator has only won one state — Minnesota — of the 15 that have held Republican primaries or caucuses. Despite his assault on Donald Trump at the GOP debate last week and his relentless ribbing of the businessman over everything from his suntan to his fingers, Mr Rubio has failed to stem the rise of Mr Trump.
Mr Rubio put on a brave face on Tuesday, telling fans in Miami that he would win Florida on March 15. His campaign would “send the message that the party of Lincoln and Reagan, and the presidency of the United States will never be held by a con artist”, he said, repeating his recent description of the Republican frontrunner.
Soon afterwards, Mr Trump declared at a press conference at his West Palm Beach resort that the Cuban-American was “the big loser of the night” after the tycoon won seven of the 11 states where Republicans voted.
The other bad news for Mr Rubio was that Ted Cruz won his home state of Texas as well as Oklahoma and Alaska. So there is even less impetus for Mr Cruz to abandon the race in order to boost Mr Rubio’s chances of challenging Mr Trump — something the Republican establishment desperately hoped to see after the departure of Jeb Bush.
Mr Rubio faces a do-or-die moment in Florida on March 15 — when the Republican race moves to a winner-take-all model — as he faces a steep climb in his own state. An average of recent polls that was compiled by Real Clear Politics showed he trails Mr Trump, who has a Florida residence on the plush Mar-a-Lago resort, by almost 20 points.
While Mr Rubio has won come-from-behind campaigns before, this will be his greatest test. Mr Trump sent a shot across his bow on Tuesday when he made clear that he was going to throw everything at burying his rival.
“I know it was a very tough night for Marco Rubio,” Mr Trump said. “He spent a lot of money. He is a lightweight . . . We’re going to go to Florida, we’re going to spend so much time in Florida.”
In the way that Texas was a must-win for Mr Cruz and Ohio is critical for Mr Kasich, the state’s governor, Mr Rubio will struggle to convince people that he has a path to the nomination if he cannot win Florida. While he would benefit from the endorsement of Mr Bush, the former Florida governor has not yet come to his rescue.
The other problem for Mr Rubio and Mr Cruz is that the New York tycoon has shown strong support across a wide geographical area. Not only did he win most of the southern conservative states, but he also came first in more liberal states such as Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia, which will be a key swing state in November.
In the coming days, Mr Rubio is likely to continue his efforts to depict Mr Trump as a fake conservative who is trying to con his supporters into backing his bid for the White House. But while some polling numbers on Tuesday showed that some late deciders preferred Rubio — suggesting that his recent attacks may get some traction — he faces a challenge trying to derail a man who has broken all the rules of politics with his campaign.
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