Before the last ballot was cast in South Carolina, Republican presidential candidates were already shifting their attention to the next big primary date on the election calendar: March 1.

Twelve states will be holding GOP nominating contests that day, known as Super Tuesday, and the biggest prize will be the 155 Republican delegates up for grabs in Texas.

Texas this year moved its primary earlier on the electoral calendar to give Lone Star State voters a greater say in the nominating process. An indirect consequence of the move might be that the last Texan standing, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, picks up a crucial victory in the race.

Cruz, who Texas GOP voters supported by a wide margin in his 2012 primary victory en route to winning his Senate seat, will look to seize momentum over real estate mogul Donald Trump in a swath of the Bible Belt tailor made for Cruz’s hardline conservative message.

“People will say, ‘Of course Ted Cruz won Texas.’ But what they need to look at is: How many delegates did he win? And I think Texas is what puts him ahead nationally on Super Tuesday, in the ‘SEC primary,’ and I think he becomes the front-runner,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a strategist who has worked on Senate races for Cruz and rival GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio but who is unaligned in the presidential race. “You have to do well nationally that day if he’s the guy who can stop Trump.”

High expectations come with high risk. If Cruz doesn’t win Texas handily, it could be disastrous for his campaign. “He absolutely has to win Texas. If he wasn’t to win his home state, that’d be a huge PR blow,” said Steve Munisteri, former Texas Republican Party chairman and senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s defunct presidential campaign.

From Cruz’s established get-out-the-vote operation to the complicated rules for awarding delegates, there’s a lot working in Cruz’s favor in Texas, political experts and strategists said. Because the second half of the GOP primary calendar features more moderate states, including some with winner-take-all delegate schemes that Cruz is unlikely to win, Texas could be Cruz’s last, best shot to take a dominant position in the race.

Other candidates also have a lot to gain in Texas, even if they don’t win the state. A good showing for Trump in Cruz’s home state could be a major coup. And Rubio might stay competitive by picking up delegates with second- and third-place finishes in the South before moving to friendlier territory later in the race. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson also need to make a splash on Super Tuesday to stay relevant.

The next GOP nominating contest is the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday, the last of the four early voting states.

Despite the outsized attention those four early states receive, Texas’ primary offers more delegates than the first four contests combined, accounting for one-eighth of all GOP delegates and one-quarter of those up for grabs on Super Tuesday, said Tom Mechler, the current state GOP chairman.

“Texas is the 900-pound gorilla on March 1, and the relevance of our state is so huge that it’s driving people to the polls,” Mechler said.

Delegate math

The headlines after primary elections often focus on how many votes each candidate received. But the real battle is for delegates, the activists assigned by each state party to cast votes for particular candidates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this July. Delegates are assigned based on election results, but the math is complicated.

The GOP prohibits states that vote before March 15 from using winner-take-all systems, a detriment for Cruz if he wins Texas. But Munisteri said the model Texas uses still has built-in advantages for whoever wins the state, meaning Cruz could potentially win a greater proportion of the state’s delegates than he does votes at the polls.

The Texas Republican Party’s hybrid system awards 47 delegates based on statewide results and 108 based on the tallies within each of the state’s 36 congressional districts. For both categories, candidates will likely have to receive at least 20 percent of the vote to win any delegates, which will squeeze out some low-polling candidates and shift the weight of their votes to the front-runners. If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of any congressional district, he takes all three of its delegates. The same goes for the 47 statewide delegates, although few expect Cruz to win a majority in such a crowded field.

Additionally, Munisteri said, the large number of delegates from Cruz’s home state could come in handy in the unlikely event that Republicans this year have a brokered convention. That would happen if no candidate has won 50 percent or more of the delegates, forcing the party to pick a nominee in Cleveland. In that scenario, delegates are only pledged to their respective candidates for the first vote at the convention. If some of the Texas delegates assigned to other candidates actually prefer Cruz, he could end up with close to all of the state’s 155 delegates on the second vote.

‘Crucial with a Z’

Just how crucial is Texas to Cruz’s candidacy? Asked that question, Mechler said, “Did you spell the word crucial with a Z?”

“Obviously, as our favorite son of the state, most people expect Ted Cruz to do well,” said Mechler, who added that neither he nor the state GOP are endorsing a candidate: “We welcome all candidates to the state and hope they spend a lot of money while they are here.”

Cruz, with his campaign headquarters in Houston, rode a wave of tea party discontent to knock off then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a fierce GOP primary in Cruz’s first run for office. He previously served as Texas solicitor general, who supervises all appellate litigation on behalf of the state attorney general.

Although Cruz isn’t well liked among his colleagues in Washington, he has powerful allies in Texas. Former Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick campaigned for Cruz in Iowa and South Carolina.

Cruz’s greatest advantage, however, might be that he has worked the retail politics circuit in Texas while the other candidates will have to parachute in, Steinhauser said.

“The main difference is that Ted Cruz has traveled the state of Texas and has gotten to meet personally (with voters) and done the Iowa approach to Texas,” he said.

Texans for Trump?

Despite Cruz’s presumed organizational dominance in Texas, no one is comfortable counting out Trump, who has defied conventional wisdom at every turn this election season.

“Texas is not apart from America or immune from the dynamic we see with Donald Trump most other places,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

One indicator of whether Trump will hamper Cruz will be the early returns from East Texas, Henson said. “I’m wondering whether those East Texas districts are taking a look at Trump and — how do we say? — his ethnic populism, the ethnicity here being white,” Henson said.

The stakes are lower for Trump, who can claim a symbolic victory if he walks away from Cruz’s home state in good shape.

“If Trump comes in second in Texas with a big hunk of delegates, he’s going to be waving that in (Cruz’s) face,” Henson said.

Rubio’s long game

Cruz and Rubio are both Cuban-American Republicans who won upset Senate primary bids en route to victories. While both have established firmly conservative records since then, Cruz has become known as a far-right rabble-rouser and Rubio has become an establishment choice for president.

As the Cruz-Trump bout takes top billing on Super Tuesday, political insiders said a dark horse candidate for a strong showing in Texas could be Rubio, who has a lower bar to clear for what might be considered success.

“Rubio needs to be a tight third place to hang in there enough until Ohio and Florida, and he can tell donors, ‘Hey these are my states. Winner take all,'” Steinhauser said.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, who is supporting Rubio, said the former Florida House speaker is poised to be the moderate or establishment choice, creating a scenario in which Rubio faces off against whoever wins the conservative vote between Cruz and Trump.

“Now that we’re seeing Rubio rise to the top of that group, I think you’re seeing a consolidation of the establishment support coalesce around Marco,” Villalba said. “I don’t think he will be able to overcome that home state Senate advantage (for Cruz), but I do think a strong second place would be a good showing here.”

Williamson County GOP Chairman Bill Fairbrother said the most energized activists he’s seen have been those supporting Cruz, Trump and Rubio.

“They’ve requested the most bumper stickers and signs and things like that,” Fairbrother said. “Rubio has been on the upswing for the last month or so.”

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GOP delegates at stake in Texas

Total delegates: 155

108: Divided based on vote in 36 congressional districts (three each)

47: Divided based on statewide vote total

Upcoming Republican primaries, caucuses

Tuesday, Feb. 23: Nevada (30 delegates)

Tuesday, March 1: Texas (155 delegates), Alabama (50 delegates), Alaska (28 delegates), American Samoa (9 delegates), Arkansas (40 delegates), Colorado (37 delegates), Georgia (76 delegates), Massachusetts (42 delegates), Minnesota (38 delegates), Oklahoma (43 delegates), Tennessee (58 delegates), Vermont (16 delegates), Virginia (49 delegates)

Upcoming Republican primaries, caucuses

Tuesday, Feb. 23: Nevada (30 delegates)

Tuesday, March 1: Texas (155 delegates), Alabama (50 delegates), Alaska (28 delegates), American Samoa (9 delegates), Arkansas (40 delegates), Colorado (37 delegates), Georgia (76 delegates), Massachusetts (42 delegates), Minnesota (38 delegates), Oklahoma (43 delegates), Tennessee (58 delegates), Vermont (16 delegates), Virginia (49 delegates)

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(c)2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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