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Super Tuesday may define November race

WASHINGTON – The rough-and-tumble 2016 race for the White House should come into sharper focus tonight after voters in a dozen states go to the polls as part of Super Tuesday, the biggest day for presidential voting before the general election on Nov. 8.

Five Republican candidates are still in the mix, with New York billionaire Donald Trump maintaining his status as front-runner heading into today’s nominating contests.

Trump has collected the most Republican delegates, by far, but Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have stepped up their attacks in recent days in a bid to slow Trump’s momentum. If Rubio and Cruz score some upsets today and in subsequent primaries on March 15, a contested GOP convention is still a possibility this summer.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich also remains in the Republican race but is trailing badly in most polls.

On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hopes to build on momentum she gained over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont with Saturday’s blowout win in South Carolina’s Democratic primary. Another big Clinton win among Super Tuesday states could all but seal the nomination for her.

But Sanders has consistently defied expectations with huge crowds and more than 4 million individual campaign contributions. If Sanders manages to carry some delegate-rich states today, it could reinvigorate his campaign and force Clinton to keep fighting for the nomination, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and a respected national political handicapper.

“After March 15, Clinton may well be able to focus mainly on the general election, even if Sanders stays in the race,” Sabato said. “If she has Super Tuesday setbacks, her timetable will be lengthened but she will still be the nominee. Trump can put away the nomination, effectively, by strong showings on March 1 and 15.”

Asked who has the most to gain in today’s contests, Sabato pointed to Rubio, a Cuban-American who represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.

“Realistically, it’s Rubio, since he is potentially poised to pick up a decent number of delegates with second-place finishes in many states,” Sabato said.

Rubio, Kasich and Cruz all desperately need to do well in their home states. Texas, with 155 delegates, is the biggest Super Tuesday prize. Two weeks from now, on March 15, Republicans will vote in primaries in Florida (99 delegates) and Ohio, which has 66 delegates. All three states are winner-take-all and are perceived as crucial for the candidates from those states.

Debbie Maestas, chairwoman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said today’s contests will offer the strongest clue yet as to who the GOP nominee will be.

“I think Super Tuesday is going to make it pretty clear who the eventual nominee is,” Maestas said. “And if there is a strong showing from Cruz and or Rubio, it could make it a much longer race, which could make the New Mexico primary (on June 7) a decisive primary. Either way, Super Tuesday should provide us with clarity on who our strongest contender is.”

While many establishment Republicans are becoming increasingly nervous about Trump – a party outsider – winning the nomination, Maestas said she is comfortable with any of the GOP candidates.

“Trump, Rubio, Cruz – any of those gentlemen, obviously being that those are the three top contenders – certainly have the skills and ability to lead this country,” Maestas said. “I think any of them would make a fine president and certainly be a better president than either Bernie or Hillary.”

Debra Haaland, chairwoman of the New Mexico Democratic Party, said she’s hoping for a big turnout in Super Tuesday states to energize Democrats around the country.

“We have two great candidates,” Haaland said. “No matter what happens, I’m hopeful that Democrats emerge united and energized.”

Haaland also said she’s not concerned that the fierce, unexpectedly close contest between Sanders and Clinton will divide Democrats when either Clinton or Sanders emerges as the nominee – at least not in New Mexico.

“In New Mexico, I think we’re all going to be on the same page,” Haaland said, noting that as state chairwoman of the Democratic Party, she is a so-called superdelegate, an unelected delegate who is free to support any candidate for the presidential nomination at the party’s national convention.

“I will be happy to vote for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton,” Haaland said.