The 2016 presidential dance card is almost set.
Republican businessman Donald Trump rumbled to primary victories in seven states Tuesday, turning back challenges from two senators, a governor and a retired doctor.
In the Democratic contests, Hillary Clinton overcame wobbles in New England and the Midwest to capture seven states and hundreds of convention delegates, widening her lead over rival Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The Super Tuesday victories don’t guarantee a Trump-Clinton matchup in November. GOP hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz showed bigger-than-expected strength in Texas, Alaska, and Oklahoma, while Sanders surprised in the Sooner state as well. Sanders also won Colorado, Minnesota and his home state of Vermont, dampening Clinton’s results and suggesting the self-proclaimed democratic socialist remains a contender.
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But the results, taken as a whole, suggest the most probable outcome remains intact. Barring a dramatic, unforeseen occurrence, it’s Trump for the Republicans, Clinton for the Democrats.
“It’s over,” said Richard Martin, a longtime Missouri political strategist.
Clinton spoke Tuesday night as if she were the presumptive nominee, previewing her coming approach to Trump’s candidacy. She tried to turn the Republican’s familiar campaign slogan inside out.
“America never stopped being great,” she said in Miami. “We have to make America whole.”
Trump answered Clinton an hour later at an unusual, sometimes-combative news conference. “I watched Hillary’s speech,” he said, referring to her criticism of low wages and inequality.
“She’s been there for so long,” Trump said. “If she hasn’t straightened it out by now, she’s not going to straighten it out in the next four years.”
He called her record as secretary of state “abysmal.” He also suggested the ongoing controversy over the security of her emails might disqualify her from being a candidate.
He’s used a similar tactic with GOP opponents.
Clinton appeared to anticipate Trump’s arguments. “The rhetoric we’re hearing on the other side has never been lower,” she said.
But both candidates’ attempts to turn to a general election argument will be complicated by their party opponents, who promised Tuesday to press on.
At least three candidates plan campaign visits to Kansas over the next three days, ahead of Saturday’s caucuses. Commercials are now airing on local television supporting that effort. There are contests on March 8, and Missouri is one of several states holding primaries March 15.
Cruz in particular may believe Kansas and Missouri are potential pick-ups in the days ahead. He has the support of U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a familiar figure in western Kansas, and voters on the state’s southern border often share the same politics as Oklahoma’s voters, who backed Cruz.
And Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, is a veteran of Missouri politics, increasing the senator’s chances in the state.
Cruz has plenty of cash to continue and can now claim he’s beaten Trump four times — something no other Republican candidate has come close to doing. Cruz, like the other non-Trumps, longs for a one-on-one matchup with the New York mogul and may now be in the best position to get it.
Tuesday night he tried to push other candidates out of the race, claiming Trump would be a disaster.
“Head to head, our campaign defeats Donald Trump resoundingly,” he said. “But for that to happen, we must come together.”
Cruz called Trump “vulgar.”
GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was projected as the winner of the Minnesota caucuses Tuesday night but otherwise could not claim a state. He’ll pick up convention delegates, but the gap between his delegate totals and Trump’s widened Tuesday, clouding his path.
He hammered Trump in his Tuesday night speech.
“The party of Lincoln and Reagan, and the presidency of the United States,” Rubio said, “will never be held by a con artist.”
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio was close in Vermont but was otherwise uncompetitive. Ben Carson did not win any states and is unlikely to win a significant number of delegates, if any at all, when all the votes are counted.
Some Republicans, horrified at Trump’s ascendance, have spent the past week poring over their party’s rulebook, war-gaming a convention battle with the bombastic candidate in July.
Chances of a contested convention remain remote. Trump can now claim roughly 20 percent of the delegates he needs to win the nomination, far more than any of his opponents. A so-called “brokered” convention would only be possible if Trump loses several large winner-take-all states, leaving all the candidates short of the 1,237 delegates needed to prevail.
As a result, many members of the GOP may now be closer to embracing Trump, who has never held elective office.
“What I’m hearing more and more,” said former Missouri GOP chairman Woody Cozad, is “they’ll hold their noses and vote for Trump if he’s the nominee. Where I was hearing, two months ago, was ‘I’m not going to vote for the guy.’ ”
For his part, Trump promised Tuesday to try to unify his party for the fall.
Clinton faces a similar challenge in the Democratic Party, although the math is simpler — she only has one opponent. And unlike the Republicans’ rhetorical assault on Trump, Sanders has avoided sharp criticism of Clinton on most issues.
The Sanders campaign plans a “path forward” breakfast with reporters Wednesday morning.
Yet some Democrats think unifying the party is the least of Clinton’s challenges. Trump would make a much more imposing opponent for Clinton than is commonly understood, they say.
“Democrats better wake up,” Martin said. “This is going to be a really tough election.”
A Trump-Clinton contest might also rank among the most negative campaigns in recent American history. Both candidates would carry high negative ratings into the contest and are extremely familiar to the public. Those circumstances make it hard for either candidate to find additional votes from independents and casual voters.
The only alternative will be to convince voters to stay home. And the best way to do that is criticize the opponent.
So Americans who have watched the primary campaign unfold with a mixture of amusement, confusion and horror may want to prepare themselves for the rest of the election season.
It’s likely we haven’t seen anything yet.