01:32 - Source: CNN
4 hours of Nevada caucus night on CNN in 90 seconds

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Rubio and Cruz are vying to lead the conservative movement into a new era

But Trump's advantage may grow going into Super Tuesday

(CNN) —  

The battle between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz is poised to intensify as the senators scramble to convince voters that they are the best alternative to Donald Trump, who easily won three of the four early-state Republican nominating contests and is racing toward the crucial Super Tuesday showdown next week on a tide of momentum.

Rubio and Cruz are vying to lead the conservative movement into a new era. But they keep bumping into each other, finishing Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses bunched together in second and third place.

Now they are in danger of canceling one another out once again, on a much bigger battleground. If they are locked in effective ties in the 11 states holding Republican contests next Tuesday, they risk leaving the opposition to the billionaire fractured and Trump with a big lead in delegates.

Renewed hostilities between Rubio and Cruz broke out as soon as Trump’s victory in Nevada was confirmed. Texas Sen. Cruz billed himself as the only senator who had proven he had beaten Trump, while his Florida rival Rubio said in contrast that he was the only candidate who could unite the Republican Party against the reality TV star.

The clashes are likely to escalate even further at the CNN Republican debate on Thursday night in Houston.

“As long as there are four people running, dividing up the non-Trump vote, you are going to get results that you saw last night,” Rubio said in an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show” on Wednesday.

But Cruz said in a speech to supporters on Tuesday night that “the undeniable reality” was that only he had emerged ahead of Trump in any contest, referring to the Iowa caucuses earlier this month.

“The only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump, and the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump, is this campaign,” Cruz said.

The Texas senator is portraying himself as the true conservative in the race and playing up his role as a rabble-rouser in Washington to paint Rubio as a tool of the establishment in a year when voters are outraged at party elites.

Cruz is already looking ahead to Super Tuesday, when Republicans in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia will cast their votes.

“One week from today will be the most important night of this campaign. One week from today is Super Tuesday,” Cruz said.

Cruz has based his campaign on his appeal to movement conservatives and evangelical voters in southern states, but his disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina, where he came in a hair behind Rubio, has cast doubt on that strategy.

With former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush out the race, Rubio, for his part, has been busy racking up endorsements from establishment Republican figures horrified by the prospect of having Trump as their nominee.

His effort is based on the rationale that while Trump has been winning primaries, he has been unable to capture a majority of Republican voters and that the anti-Trump vote will in the end be decisive in the GOP race. It is also premised on the notion that Cruz, like Trump, has a ceiling on his support and that only Rubio can corral more moderate Republican voters.

Rubio is also hoping to leverage some of his considerable appeal to conservatives and his image as an invigorating fresh face to bridge divides in the Republican Party and broaden its appeal to voters looking for an optimistic message for the future.

RELATED: Trump scores big win in Nevada

“The vast and overwhelming majority of Republicans do not want Donald Trump to be our nominee,” Rubio told the “Today Show.” Rubio billed himself as the only realistic alternative to the real estate magnate and piled pressure on other candidates like Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson to exit the race to allow him to consolidate opposition to Trump.

“As long as there are four people running, dividing up the non-Trump vote, you are going to get results that you saw last night,” Rubio said.

The Florida senator’s long-game political strategy, however, is hurt by the fact that he has yet to deliver a victory in the race after coming third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and narrowly beating Cruz to come second in South Carolina and Nevada.

Allies say that the wins will come once the field has been narrowed and the anti-Trump vote lines up behind the freshman Florida senator. But the fractured field means that the supposed consolidation of voters opposed to the billionaire outsider candidate may only take place after Super Tuesday, when Trump could have a prohibitive advantage in the delegate count.

“If we don’t come together, we’re never going to be able to provide a clear alternative to the direction that Donald Trump wants to take the Republican Party and the country,” Rubio said Wednesday on Fox News’ “Fox and Friends.”

While Cruz and Rubio were left puzzling how to slow the Trump juggernaut – with the real estate mogul polling strongly in a string of Super Tuesday contests – the front-runner himself was basking in another decisive victory.

“We weren’t expected to win too much and now we’re winning, winning, winning the country,” Trump said after his Nevada triumph. “And soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning.”

He then crowed about the depth of his appeal in the Silver State.

“We won the evangelicals,” he said. “We won with young. With won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

Trump is now so confident, he’s looking ahead to Day 1 of his presidency.

“First thing is knock out some of the executive orders done by our president,” Trump told ABC’s “Good Morning America” about his first few planned acts.

“One, on border where people can pour into (the) country like Swiss cheese. I would knock out Obamacare. Take care of our vets and military,” the billionaire businessman said.

Trump now has 86 of the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination. Of candidates still in the race, Cruz has 17, Rubio has 16, Kasich has six and Carson has four, according to a CNN count.

Trump’s advantage may grow going into Super Tuesday since his method of campaigning – attracting massive media coverage and dropping into states to hold huge rallies – is suited to the day’s wide primary battlefield.

Driving Trump’s Nevada victory were caucusgoers who said they wanted a president from outside the political establishment, according to entrance polls. That dynamic seems likely to repeat in many states next Tuesday.

The billionaire has already gone negative on Cruz, apparently seeing him as a threat to his anti-establishment base.

“I’ve met much tougher people than Ted Cruz,” Trump said in his parting shot at the Texas senator during a rally in Sparks, Nevada, before the caucuses. “He is like a little baby compared to some of the people I have to deal with. He is like a little baby: soft, weak, little baby by comparison.”

Rubio has so far escaped largely unscathed. But after he was roughed up by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in New Hampshire during a debate, he must now brace for a possible assault from Trump as well.

CNN’s Eugene Scott contributed to this report.