District of Columbia: US Senator Ted Cruz struck first in the series of five presidential nomination contests held Saturday, besting Donald Trump in Kansas and boosting his claim as the most viable alternative to the billionaire frontrunner.
With nearly half of the votes counted, networks called the midwestern state for Cruz, who earned some 49 percent of the vote, doubling up on Trump who was second with 25 percent. Senator Marco Rubio was in third, followed by Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Kansas and the other contests will provide the first test of whether the Republican establishment`s desperate effort to halt Trump, led this week by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, is having any effect among voters.
The brash real estate mogul Trump is ahead in the all-important delegate count for the Republicans, having won 10 of the 15 states that have voted to date in the process that determines the nominees for both parties.
But Cruz`s win is a reminder that while Trump still appears to be the likely nominee, it is by no means inevitable.
"God bless Kansas!" Cruz told a campaign rally in Idaho, upon learning that he was projected the winner.
"What we`re seeing is conservatives coming together... and standing as one behind this campaign."
The GOP race has been winnowed down to four men: political outsiders Trump and Cruz, and the more mainstream candidates Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Many in the Republican establishment are in virtual panic over whether anyone can stop Trump`s march.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is well ahead of rival Senator Bernie Sanders, hoping to expand her lead as she inches closer to securing the nomination.
Clinton and Sanders do battle Saturday in Kansas, Louisiana and Nebraska, while the Republicans are contesting Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine.
The former secretary of state is expected to dominate in Louisiana, the weekend`s biggest prize, because of its large African-American vote.
But Sanders could bounce back in the other two states -- plus Maine, which holds its Democratic caucus Sunday -- because they have largely white populations, a demographic with which Sanders has done well.
Saturday`s races are wedged between far more consequential contests: the dozen states that voted on "Super Tuesday" March 1 and the big battles on March 15, when many Republican races, including in Rubio`s Florida and Kasich`s Ohio, become winner-take-all affairs.
Cruz received an added boost Saturday when he won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a prominent gathering of grass roots far-right activists.
Cruz finished first with 40 percent, followed by Rubio with 30, Trump with 15 and Kasich at eight percent.
Trump made waves when he cancelled a scheduled Saturday morning appearance at CPAC near Washington, opting instead to hold a rally in Wichita, Kansas.
The move angered members of the American Conservative Union which hosts CPAC.
"I think it was a big mistake for Donald Trump not to be here," ACU chairman Matt Schlapp told CNN. Trump told the Wichita crowd that Romney, who on Thursday called Trump "a fraud," was a "loser" who should have defeated President Barack Obama.
"It`s the establishment. The establishment is against us," Trump said.
Rubio, seen by many political observers as the best hope to defeat Trump, issued a forceful repudiation of the frontrunner, challenging him, like many Republicans have, on his conservative credentials.
Rubio brought the house down at CPAC when he warned about a dire future for Republicans "if the conservative movement is hijacked by someone that`s not a conservative."
With Trump`s challengers insisting they are in it for the long haul, there is a chance no candidate will rack up the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination before the convention in July.
That would mean a contested or "brokered" convention, a scenario that could turn chaotic, especially if establishment figures seek to somehow actively prevent delegates from coalescing around Trump.
There are 155 delegates at stake in Saturday`s Republican races.
Heading into Saturday, Trump led the field with 329 delegates, followed by Cruz with 231 and Rubio with 110. Kasich trailed with 25.
Trump has won 10 state contests, while Cruz has claimed five including Kansas. Rubio has won one.