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Greg Bluestein

Ted Cruz slows Donald Trump’s momentum with two Saturday victories

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Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to members of the media before a campaign appearance, Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won decisive victories in Kansas and Maine on Saturday, and two surprisingly strong second-place finishes in Kentucky and Louisiana, as he tried to cut deeper into frontrunner Donald Trump’s lead in the Republican race for the White House.

Both of Cruz’s victories could be considered upsets. He trailed Trump in polls in Kansas and has struggled in New England, a region where Trump has picked up victories in three other states. He’s tried to position himself for months as the true conservative in the race; the difference Saturday was that he won the lion’s share of the anti-Trump vote.

“What we’re seeing is conservatives coming together,” Cruz said at a campaign stop in Idaho, where he encouraged Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to drop out. A few hours later, Trump echoed that call.

“Marco has to get out of the race,” Trump said. “Uh, do I want to run against just Ted. That will be easy.”

Rubio had a dismal night, finishing in a distant third in three states and fourth in Maine. The third-place finish in Kansas, where he netted less than one-fifth of the vote, was particularly disappointing for his campaign, since Rubio scrapped other trips over the weekend to campaign there over the weekend.

The Floridian vowed Saturday to win his home state on March 15, a winner takes all contest with 99 delegates at stake.

“Tonight we will have more delegates than last night,” he said. “This map only gets better for us.”

Kasich, too, is betting his candidacy on a victory in his native Ohio on the same day.

Trump’s struggles in the two caucus states will likely raise new questions about whether more conservatives are rejecting the billionaire as establishment Republicans unload scathing new attacks on him.

Yet he still holds the advantage in the national delegate count and his victory in Louisiana and Kentucky, despite a late surge by Cruz in both states, helped him maintain his lead.

On the Democratic side, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won caucuses in Nebraska and Kansas, both states he was expected to lock up. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, continued her dominance of the South by notching a victory in Louisiana, which boasts the biggest number of delegates at stake on Saturday.

More: Read about this weekend’s presidential primaries

More: Inside Donald Trump’s sweeping Georgia primary victory