Cruz, Rubio, Sanders employing underdog strategies

For Trump and Clinton, the plan is simple: more of the same. But for the rest of the campaign's remaining hopefuls it is hardly so easy.
By Eric DuVall  |  Updated March 2, 2016 at 4:33 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 2 (UPI) -- For presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the plan after Super Tuesday is simple: more of the same.

But for the campaign's other remaining hopefuls, it is hardly so easy. The battle for their party nominations becomes a quest for survival. Resources become scarce. The media narrative isn't helpful -- and is sometimes downright hostile.

On the Republican side, those seeking to catch Trump have yet to settle their second-place score and are battling to be the last man standing in the ring with him. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich each argue they're the candidate best-suited to defeat Trump -- and each says he needs the other two to drop out before it can happen.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders is fighting a pitched battle against his own party's elite, trying to rally support despite Clinton's big lead in superdelegates, the party brass who are given free reign to pick the candidate they like, and who, if they don't change their minds, will eventually put the race out of his reach no matter how well he performs in the 35 remaining primaries and caucuses.

For the underdogs, this is where things get tough.

Courting delegates with super powers

Sanders remains competitive in many parts of the country. He carried four states on Super Tuesday, good for third-best in the entire race and the best for a candidate not named Clinton or Trump.

His appeal among more affluent white liberals is enduring, and they continue to open their pocketbooks to support him and ensure that he will be able to fulfill his promise after Super Tuesday, to continue his fight all the way to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. For Sanders, campaign cash is not the problem.

The problem is the delegate math, and the way his party has written the rules for winning the nomination. There are three numbers to consider in the delegate count:

• 2,383, the magic number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination

• 3,323, the total number of delegates headed to the convention

• 712, the total number of superdelegates available

The superdelegates are typically elected officials or party elders from each state who have been granted authority by the Democratic National Committee to show up at the convention every four years and cast their ballot for whichever candidate they like.

Most years their votes are an afterthought, but in closely contested primaries, like in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama narrowly defeated Clinton after both candidates went the distance through all 50 states, superdelegates are power brokers. In this scenario, superdelegates ultimately can decide who wins their party's nomination.

With Clinton reeling off several early wins and posting a strong showing on Super Tuesday -- and given her deep ties in Democratic politics forged over 25 years -- Clinton's lead among superdelegates is commanding. Her campaign says she has pledges of support from more than 400 of the 712 superdelegates available.

Sanders has pledged support from about 20.

The Sanders campaign has pushed back hard on the media narrative that Clinton's delegate lead is insurmountable. After all, their pledged delegate race -- the ones awarded by actual voters -- is relatively close. But key to that argument for Sanders is, essentially, ignoring superdelegates for now. Because those party leaders are not bound to support a candidate who wins their home state, like a pledged delegate, Sanders argues they shouldn't be counted just yet.

The reality is, they will not simply change their minds and support him over Clinton without significant reason to do so. Should the tide turn in future big-state contests like Florida and Ohio, and Democratic voters began handing Sanders decisive victories there, some undecided superdelegates would come to him. But more likely, Sanders needs superdelegates already pledged to Clinton to make the political calculation he is the better choice to win in a general election.

That would require a new and outsize influence on the race, like a major scandal.

With all that, it's easy to see why the Sanders campaign doesn't relish the argument -- it's the political equivalent to a doomsday scenario for Democrats. Absent a significant change in voting patterns so far, it may well be what is necessary for him to win the nomination.

A three-way chess match

It has been a race for silver thus far on the Republican side, and a hope among the three remaining candidates opposing Trump to climb the podium from there.

For Cruz, Rubio and Kasich, the question is how to turn public opinion about their flagging campaigns -- and which states offer the best chance to do so.

For Rubio and Kasich, the answer to where is obvious: their home states. Rubio and Kasich will each face primaries on home turf in Florida and Ohio respectively, on March 15. They are do-or-die primaries for both men, given losses for either would all but convince donors their candidacies are futile.

The good news for them is, victories could provide a desperately needed reset. And both Florida and Ohio are winner-take-all states, meaning victories would also provide a significant boost in their delegate counts, while also forestalling Trump's effort to clinch the nomination.

Home state victories for either man would buy time and extend a race that, at its present pace, would see Trump sewing up the nomination sometime in May.

Cruz has passed his home state test with a victory in Texas on Tuesday. The question for him is whether to continue spending resources trying to push out the other two candidates, or train his fire on Trump and ignore Rubio and Kasich.

Both paths carry risk.

Spending money on the negative television ads usually necessary to sink a candidate -- especially in the expensive media markets of Florida and Ohio -- could leave him with a Pyrrhic victory as the last man standing against Trump, but with little remaining to go after him.

However, allowing Rubio and Kasich to continue forward much longer means failing to fully capitalize on votes cast for someone other than Trump in large, delegate-rich states where only the winner is rewarded for their effort.

There's a third option, as well, which the Cruz campaign has hinted it will consider: Let Trump take out Rubio and Kasich in their home states, and use the resources saved not doing it himself to attack Trump in the other states ahead on the calendar.

The Cruz campaign has stated it plans to run hard in three states voting Saturday -- Kansas, Louisiana and Maine. After posting victories in Iowa and Oklahoma, Cruz was headed to Kansas on Wednesday with the hope of continuing his string of good fortune in the Midwest. After that, the campaign may choose to focus on two other states voting on March 15 -- North Carolina and Missouri -- while Rubio and Kasich focus on defending their home states from Trump and keeping their campaigns alive.

Demonstrating how difficult life can be for a presidential underdog, perhaps the best-case scenario for Cruz -- Trump clearing the field of everyone but him over the next two weeks -- still is not good news. Cruz would be one-on-one with Trump -- who would then be a front-runner on a roll, with a huge delegate lead after winning Florida and Ohio.

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