Donald Trump stormed to victory in the Republican caucuses in Nevada, giving the billionaire businessman his third straight win in the race for the White House.
With 20 percent of the vote in, TV networks gave Trump 44 per cent, with senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas trailing some 20 points behind in a tight race for second.
“This is an amazing night,” Trump told cheering supporters in a victory speech.
The lopsided result underscored the enormous challenge Trump’s rivals face as the candidates head into next week’s all important “Super Tuesday” contests involving 11 states.
As early returns came in, CNN and Fox News had Rubio in second place with about 25 per cent of the vote and Cruz in third place with about 22 percent.
Trump said his win was broadly based.
“We won the evangelicals. We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated,” he said.
“I love the poorly educated. We’re the smartest people. We’re the most loyal people.”
The remaining two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Governor John Kasich, lagged far behind in the single digits.
Cruz insisted he was the only candidate who could beat Trump and said he was now setting his sight on next Tuesday’s crucial contests.
“One week from today will be the most important night of this campaign,” he said.
Trump had been all but certain to triumph in Nevada, with the big question being whether Rubio — favoured by mainstream Republicans — could clinch second place.
The contest was the fourth for the Republican presidential candidates, with Trump so far winning in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He came in second in Iowa.
Although the caucus in Nevada is not expected to have a significant impact on the overall race — only 30 delegates or slightly more than one percent of the total are up for grabs — it was the first contest for the Republicans in the US West.
It is also the first test of Republican voter sentiment after Jeb Bush pulled out of the race last week following a poor showing in South Carolina.
All eyes were on whether Rubio and Cruz would be able to slow Trump’s momentum and which of the two candidates would come in second.
“Who is going to be the strongest guy to go against Trump… is going to be more clear after today,” said Dan Lee, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Today we are going to see whether voters are going to move over more in support of Rubio.”
He noted that the Nevada caucus was taking place as mainstream Republicans are grudgingly accepting the fact that Trump may well end up the party’s nominee given his seemingly unstoppable winning streak.
“A lot of Republicans — especially the Republican establishment, professionals, governors — don’t really want Trump to win the nomination,” Lee said.
“They want to get Cruz out and have Rubio go against Trump.”
– ‘Soft, weak, little baby’ –
The real estate magnate dished out his trademark rhetoric against his rivals ahead of the vote Tuesday, comparing Cruz to a “soft, weak, little baby” at a rally.
“But for lying, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” he added.
Cruz fired back, accusing Trump of consistently vacillating on issues and saying his insults showed how rattled he was.
“@realDonaldTrump, showing class & grace, calls me a ‘soft weak little baby,’” Cruz tweeted. “Hope he doesn’t try to eat me!”
The Republican field, which once stood at 17, has shrunk to five, with Bush the latest to pull out on Saturday.
After Nevada, the real test on where the presidential candidates stand will come on March 1, when 11 states go to the polls in what is known as “Super Tuesday.”
Unlike primaries, caucuses allow participants to openly engage with one another and hear arguments from candidates’ supporters or surrogates, in meetings at schools, community centers and churches.
Republicans then vote by secret ballot, in 130 caucus sites across Nevada.
The results will be used to determine the number of Republican delegates who represent the state at the party’s nominating convention in July.