On Friday, when U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio joked that Donald Trump might have wet himself at Thursday night’s debate, and Trump responded with a taunting pantomime of Rubio as a plastic water bottle, both while speaking at North Texas rallies, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was engaged in more pedestrian politicking in Nashville, Tenn.

“I think Super Tuesday is going to be the most important day in this whole election,” Cruz said at a rally during which he was interviewed onstage by Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “There’s a very significant possibility that we will come out of that with Donald having won some delegates, with me having won a bunch of delegates and with everybody else having won very, very few delegates.”

“For those 65 percent of Republicans who say Donald is not the right guy, I would encourage everyone here in Tennessee, everyone across Super Tuesday, if you don’t want to see Donald Trump as the nominee, we need to unite, and the candidate who is running neck and neck with Donald in the states across Super Tuesday is me,” Cruz said. “If you want to beat Donald, stand with us.”

For the Cruz campaign, Super Tuesday — with voting in just two days in 11 Republican contests, more than half, including Texas, in the South — was supposed to be tinder that would set the political map on fire, lighting the freshman Texas senator’s path to his party’s presidential nomination.

But after a string of third-place finishes in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and after an auspicious win in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, which began the process, Super Tuesday now seems destined be his firewall or his last stand.

Cruz expects to win in Texas and to collect at least 100 of its 155 delegates, by far the biggest single-state haul for any candidate so far. But, if he wants to go to the Republican National Convention in July in Cleveland as something more than a favorite son with some chips to barter at what might yet be a brokered convention, Cruz has to win beyond Texas.

“If he doesn’t win any other states, and if his victory in Texas is less than resounding, it could be a rough night for Ted,” said Steve Munisteri, who left the chairmanship of the Texas Republican Party last year to be a senior adviser to the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who quit the race after a fifth-place finish in Iowa.

The Cruz campaign had expected that Cruz would be the most conservative candidate in the race, the preferred candidate of evangelical Christians and the candidate who best captured the electorate’s angry mood as the anti-establishment choice most feared and reviled in Washington, D.C.

But Trump has spoiled all those calculations, building a populist coalition that crosses all demographic and geographic lines, and, most unpredictably, includes born-again Christians, who, in South Carolina preferred Trump to Cruz, and seriously undermined the Texan’s campaign blueprint, especially for winning the South.

‘A tough row to hoe’

For Cruz, the days after South Carolina’s Feb. 20 GOP primary and through the Nevada caucuses three days later were the toughest suffered by any candidate this cycle, said Drew Ryun, chief strategist for the pro-Cruz Keep the Promise super PACs.

But, he said, the campaign has “righted the ship” in the last few days and stands to emerge from Super Tuesday as the only realistic alternative to Trump.

“If it’s a very, very good day, and I mean a very good day for Ted Cruz, we could win five states. If it’s a so-so day, we win three. And if we win Texas, we win Texas,” said Ryun, who believes the campaign’s best shot for other victories are in the states bordering Texas — Oklahoma and Arkansas — and in Alaska, with a hybrid primary/caucus system that rewards a campaign as well-organized as Cruz’s.

Meanwhile, Ryun said, “I do not see a state where Marco Rubio wins on Super Tuesday. How is he going to continue to message and spin that to his donors, to his supporters?”

Rubio’s best-case scenario is that he defeats Trump on his home turf in Florida’s winner-take-all March 15 primary.

But, Ryun said, “He has a tough row to hoe between now and Florida on March 15, and then you look at Florida and the most promising poll for him still has him down something like 15 points. I’m not sure he can make the argument that much longer that he is the most viable candidate, that he is the new face of the Republican Party.”

A Bloomberg Politics poll released last week of voters in seven southern Super Tuesday states said Trump had a substantial lead, with 37 percent support to 20 percent each for Cruz and Rubio, and beating either Cruz or Rubio in one-on-one matchups.

On Saturday, Ryun suggested Rubio would make a great vice presidential candidate on a Cruz ticket — something they could sell to voters in later primaries — but that he can’t see Rubio quitting the race until after Florida.

Roger Stone, a former adviser to Trump who said he remains in almost daily contact with the Republican front-runner, said during a visit to Austin on Saturday that he has been told by people close to Mitt Romney that they have communicated to Rubio that, if he can’t win Florida, Romney, the party’s 2012 standard-bearer, is prepared to make a late entry into the race to try to deprive Trump of the nomination.

“It’s almost mathematically impossible for this race to be over before April,” Munisteri said. “Now it may be practically over, but it can’t be mathematically over unless you start having Donald Trump winning by 50 percent or more.”

Of Cruz or Rubio, Munisteri said, “If either one of them gets out of the race, Donald Trump wouldn’t be the front-runner.”

“Cruz has the best shot to beat Trump if he could get him one-on-one. I don’t think Rubio could beat him,” Rick Tyler, Cruz’s former communications director, said on MSNBC. Cruz asked Tyler to resign last week for retweeting a false report that Rubio had dissed the Bible in an encounter with a Cruz volunteer and Cruz’s father in South Carolina

But, for now, Tyler said, “I don’t think either one of them will give it up.”

‘Talking about actual policy’

In the meantime, the pro-Cruz super PACs have launched a $2.4 million radio and TV campaign in eight Super Tuesday states to “remind voters what they liked about Ted Cruz in the first place,” and take the shine off Rubio’s halo, said Kellyanne Conway, pollster for the pro-Cruz super PACs, and the president of one of them.

On Saturday, both Rubio and Cruz were in Georgia, with Rubio renewing his belittling of Trump, including his hair and his penchant for suing people, noting that he “should sue whoever did that to his face.”

At his own rally in Arkansas, Trump, joined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who endorsed him the day before, responded in kind.

“Little Rubio has a fresh mouth. I thought Cruz was a liar, but Rubio is worse,” Trump said. “This light little man calling me a con man.”

Conway said she understands the entertainment value, but she cannot believe the electorate can long tolerate this kind of discourse.

Of the top three candidates, she said, “Cruz is alone on the stump talking about actual policy.”

Cruz was in Georgia and Arkansas on Saturday, and he is scheduled to campaign in Arkansas and Oklahoma on Sunday, before returning Monday to Texas for rallies in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

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EXPERT REPORTING

American-Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove has covered the GOP presidential campaign since last year and through the early caucus and primary states.

SUPER TUESDAY

Texas and 11 other states, many in the South, will vote in presidential primaries and caucuses Tuesday. It’s the first voting date with multiple nominating contests. About a fourth of all delegates will be decided that day on both the Republican and Democratic sides.

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(c)2016 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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