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National

Ted Cruz Hopes To Emerge As Viable Challenger To Donald Trump

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We've barely recovered from this weekend's primary contests, and now tomorrow's votes are fast approaching. Republicans vote in Idaho and Hawaii. Both parties choose their candidates in Mississippi and Michigan. Michigan is the biggest prize, and that's where blue-collar voters have kept Donald Trump ahead in Republican polls. Here's Trump today speaking about his chances.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I've been to Michigan a lot, and I think we're going to do well there. And we have Idaho. We love Idaho potatoes, right?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ted Cruz did well over the weekend. He is fewer than a hundred delegates behind Trump now. And today at campaign stops like this one in Mississippi, Cruz raised more questions about the frontrunner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: And we saw at the last debate where Donald stood up over and over again and said he would be flexible on immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stand strong.

CRUZ: Now, let me tell you right now. Flexible is Washington, D.C., code word for we're about to stick it to you.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now to discuss the latest turns in the Republican race is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Welcome back, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Glad to be.

SHAPIRO: Before we turn to the Republican race, some news in what one might call a possible independent (laughter) race just this afternoon breaking about Michael Bloomberg.

LIASSON: Bloomberg says he is not going to enter the 2016 race. So that solves one of the biggest mysteries everybody's been on the edge of their seats waiting for Bloomberg to decide. But he's not going to run.

SHAPIRO: Well, then to the Republicans - is this looking like a, basically, two-man race now between Trump and Cruz?

LIASSON: I think it is. The two of them certainly think so. They both are calling for Marco Rubio and John Kasich to drop out. Cruz actually won more delegates than - this weekend than Trump did, and he has emerged as the clear alternative to Trump. But when you look beyond tomorrow to March 15 where Ohio and Florida vote and even beyond that to New Jersey, New York, California, Illinois, the landscape looks more hospitable to Trump than Cruz.

SHAPIRO: So over the weekend, Cruz won Kansas and Maine while Trump won Kentucky and Louisiana. But Trump's margins of victory in those states were not as big as he might've liked. What do you make of that?

LIASSON: No, they weren't huge. And they were also way below what he was polling in those states. And there are a couple possible reasons for that. Trump is, for the first time, the target of many millions of dollars of negative ads. And we know that all along, late deciders have tended to break against Trump. People who decide early on for him tend to stick with him. But this weekend, the late deciders broke against Trump by even greater margins.

Also, Kansas and Maine were caucuses. That favors ground organization. That's what Cruz has and what Trump doesn't have or what he hasn't been willing to spend his own money to get. And we're seeing a trend that Trump does worse in closed primaries when only Republican-registered voters can vote because Trump gets a lot of support from crossover Democrats and independents.

SHAPIRO: The establishment has been working so hard to keep Trump from getting this nomination. But Cruz is not exactly beloved by the establishment either.

LIASSON: No. This is an excruciating choice for many Republican establishment figures. Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance - no fan of Cruz's - thinks rallying behind Cruz is the best bet. Another relatively moderate Republican senator told me privately he'd rather have Trump as president than Cruz. This is a very, very tough choice. One is unpredictable. The other candidate is really despised.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And who did the Republicans you're talking to think has a better chance against the Democratic nominee in November?

LIASSON: Well, there's no consensus. Many Republicans think Cruz is way too far right to win. Trump's path to the White House would be very unorthodox. It would involve flipping a lot of blue states to red, increasing turnout among non-college-educated whites, those poorly educated people Trump says he loves. He'd have to raise their turnout to record-breaking levels in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin. Trump talks about this all the time. He says no normal Republican can win Michigan, but he can.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.