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Trump takes Florida, in devastating blow to Rubio

Donald Trump crushed Marco Rubio in his home state on Tuesday — a devastating defeat for the Florida senator that sends all of the state’s 99 delegates to the business mogul as he nears the halfway mark of clinching the GOP nomination.

But other key races still loomed large for Trump. In Ohio, exit polls showed Gov. John Kasich narrowly ahead but the race was too close to call. In North Carolina, Trump led in early returns and was ahead in the exit polling.

As the Republican nominating calendar turns to winner-take-all states like Ohio and Florida, Trump was looking to score knockout blows. His victory in Florida — Trump was up by by 20 points as results were tallied, and the race was called as soon as the last polls closed — could drive Rubio from the race.

Trump’s opponents acknowledge that if he sweeps both states — Florida’s 99 delegates and Ohio’s 66 — it will be hard to stop him going forward, though Sen. Ted Cruz’s team believes they can begin to defeat Trump if they get a one-on-one contest.

The three other states that vote on Tuesday — Missouri, Illinois and North Carolina — offer a combined 193 delegates.

Heading into Tuesday, Trump had 460 of the 1,237 delegates he needed to secure the nomination without a contested convention, followed by Cruz with 370, Rubio with 163 and Kasich, who has yet to win a state, with 63.

As Kasich and Rubio have burrowed to protect their home turf, Cruz has focused on the other states up for grabs in the closing days, with four Missouri stops on Saturday, a North Carolina rally on Sunday and five events in Illinois on Monday. His wife, Heidi, also campaigned on his behalf.

North Carolina delivers its delegates on a purely proportional basis, so the winner won’t gain a significant edge. But Missouri and Illinois are winner-take-all by congressional district, with the statewide winner getting an extra haul. That means a dominant performance in either state could net a huge delegate advantage. Some heavily Democratic seats in St. Louis and Chicago — worth the same delegate-wise as rural Republican strongholds — make the race particularly unpredictable in the Midwestern states.

Even before the sun had risen Tuesday on the full continental United States, Trump continued his winning ways, carrying the remote Northern Mariana Islands and their 9 winner-take-all delegates. Trump took nearly three-quarters of the vote, according to a local Republican Party official.

The five states that vote Tuesday represent the latest test of the durability of Trump’s coalition of the disaffected. It comes days after his rallies have turned violent and after a two-week period in which Trump has been subjected to more negative advertising than in the prior months combined.

In Florida, in particular, backers of Rubio and opponents of Trump have blanketed the airwaves with a range of anti-Trump messaging. Ads have hit him over his treatment of women, for allegedly scamming students of Trump University, his alleged ties to shady business figures, for outsourcing American jobs and more.

The financiers of those ads are set to gather in Florida later this week to reassess the state of the race after Tuesday, and the impact, or lack of impact, of their millions of dollars in advertising. Meanwhile, a group of conservatives is planning a meeting Thursday in Washington D.C. to talk about running a third-party “true conservative” to challenge Trump.

Trump has appeared unworried about Florida in recent days as his lead there in most public surveys hovered around 20 percentage points.

He returns to Florida on Tuesday night for an evening press conference at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, just as he did on March 1. Trump hopes it will be his latest victory lap.

Win or lose, though, this much is certain: Trump’s event is sure to yet again dominate the cable newscasts on a big night for viewership.

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