DONALD Trump chalked up another big victory on the Nevada leg of the Republican presidential race last night, in spite of a caucus process that at times proved chaotic and contentious.
Neither Marco Rubio nor Ted Cruz came close to preventing the belligerent billionaire claiming a third presidential primary triumph in a row, following his double-digit wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
With around 15 per cent of precincts reporting, Mr Rubio, who spent part of his childhood in Nevada, was running a distant second in the Silver State, at approximately 24 per cent of the vote to Mr Trump's 45. The result comes a week before 1 March, known as Super Tuesday, when Mr Trump is expected to secure several more states, propelling him ever closer to the nomination.
In a gleeful speech to supporters in Las Vegas, Mr Trump noted that pundits had originally predicted that he would not win in Nevada. "Now we're winning, winning, winning the country - and soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning," he said, adding: "You're going to be proud of your President, and you're going to be even prouder of your country."
Last night's was just the third caucus the Nevada GOP had hosted since the process was introduced to the state in 2008, and the party appeared underprepared for the large turn-out, which led to long queues at many caucus sites, as well as ballot shortages and claims that some voters' IDs had not been properly checked.
There were multiple reports of caucus volunteers collecting ballots while wearing Trump t-shirts and hats, though the state GOP insisted it was within the rules for volunteers to advertise their preference. Mr Trump tweeted a warning of potential foul play to his supporters, telling them not to be "misled by the Cruz people" during the voting process. "They are bad! BE CAREFUL," he wrote.
Mr Cruz's campaign ran into trouble in recent days, as he fired his spokesman Rick Tyler over a tweet that mistakenly accused Mr Rubio of mocking the Bible. The dismissal, though, did little to dispel the impression that the Texas Senator's campaign is prone to dirty tricks. "Cruz lies more than any human being I've ever dealt with," Mr Trump said at a rally in Las Vegas on Monday. In the end, Mr Cruz appeared to have finished third in Nevada, up to four per cent behind Mr Rubio.
Nevada's mixed electorate gave the candidates their first opportunity to reach out to the Latino voters that many believe are crucial to the Republicans regaining the White House. Mr Rubio's parents and Mr Cruz's father are Cuban, yet entrance polls suggested that of the Latinos who took part in the caucus - around nine per cent of total voters - significantly more had voted for Mr Trump than for his rivals. "Number one with Hispanics," Mr Trump reflected. "I'm really happy about that."
Rolando Dondon, 66, one of precious few non-white voters lining up to caucus at Bonanza high school in Las Vegas, said he had supported Jeb Bush until the former Florida Governor dropped out of the race this week, but now believed Trump was the "strong male role model" the US needed. "I don't want us just to be one of the many; I want America to remain a leader in the world," he said.
In an interview on Monday, Mr Cruz joined Mr Trump in vowing, as President, to round up and forcibly deport America's 12 million undocumented immigrants. Mr Dondon, who was born in the Philippines and spent 30 years in the US Navy, said he agreed with Mr Trump's hard-line stance on immigration. "People who want to come to America have to obey the law," he said.
A few miles away at Ed W Clark high school, another caucus site, Bill Tarbell, who is running to represent Nevada as a Republican in the US Senate, said he too was backing Mr Trump. "There are many similarities between Rubio, Cruz and Trump's platforms," he said. "But when I talk to people all over the state they say pretty much the same thing: strength. Trump has the gonads."
With Mr Bush out of the race, Mr Rubio is now the anointed candidate of the GOP establishment, having garnered at least a dozen endorsements from governors or members of Congress in recent days. The Florida Senator said yesterday that he was the one remaining candidate capable of uniting Republicans to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton at the election in November, telling an audience in Las Vegas: "It can't just be about electing the loudest person in the room."
As the results came in last night, Mr Rubio had already left Nevada to campaign in Minnesota and Michigan, hoping - perhaps in vain - to head off the Trump charge. In his victory speech, Mr Trump pointed to his promising poll numbers in his rivals' home states: Texas, Florida and Ohio.
At Ed W Clark high school, John Kasich supporter Erik Lurz, 30, said he had struggled to persuade Nevadans of the merits of his candidate, the Governor of Ohio, who finished dead last with fewer than five per cent of the vote. "Kasich is the kind of person I want to lead our country: he's positive, he cares, he represents the values I'd like to emulate," Mr Lurz said. "Look at candidates like Cruz and Trump: I don't want to emulate their values, and I don't want them to represent our country."
Mr Trump chose to hold his victory party at the Treasure Island hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip, not at his own nearby property, the Trump International Hotel. The local chapter of the Culinary Workers union had staged a caucus day demonstration at the Trump hotel, protesting the Trump Organisation's refusal to recognise its workers attempts to unionise.
Among those present at the party were Mr Trump's fellow billionaires Phil Ruffin, the owner of Treasure Island, and Steve Wynn, who owns several Vegas resorts including the eponymous Wynn hotel and casino. Mr Wynn, who once feuded publicly with Mr Trump over their rival casino developments in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is now an unofficial adviser to the Trump campaign.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.