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As Cruz Exits Race, Trump Cements His Spot As Likely GOP Nominee

The Indiana voters shook up the presidential race Tuesday night, with Ted Cruz ending his campaign after a disappointing loss to now-likely GOP nominee Donald Trump.

Bernie Sanders also bounced back after a string of primary losses with a surprise win over Hillary Clinton. But the Democrat's 5-point win still won't be enough to close the yawning gap between the two.

Cruz exit clears the way for likely Trump nomination

Indiana proved decisive in the GOP contest, putting the real estate mogul over the 1,000-delegate threshold and pushing the Texas senator out of the race. Now Trump is 84 percent of the way to getting the 1,237 delegates he needs, and he needs just 37 percent of the remaining delegates to get there. It was already mathematically impossible for either Cruz or Ohio Sen. John Kasich to get a majority of delegates on the first convention ballot.

After Cruz suspended his campaign, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted that Trump would be the GOP's presumptive nominee and that the party should fall in line behind him.

In a more subdued speech than usual at his Trump Tower, the likely GOP nominee did begin to pivot toward the general election and his probable Democratic rival.

"We are going after Hillary Clinton," Trump said. "She will not be a great president. She will not be a good president. She will be a poor president."

"We want to bring unity to the Republican Party," he pleaded. "We have to."

And even after he mercilessly battered Cruz up until Tuesday morning, Trump praised the Texas senator's campaign and his political skills.

"I don't know if he likes me or he doesn't like me," Trump said, "but he is one hell of a competitor. He is a tough, smart guy. And he has got an amazing future."

Indiana had emerged as a must-win for Cruz and the #NeverTrump forces who were set on stopping the controversial GOP front-runner from getting the Republican nomination. Anti-Trump groups spent $2.8 million on TV in Indiana, while Cruz's campaign and his allies combined to spend $3.3 million on air. Trump's campaign spent under $1 million.

"Obviously Trump's victory in Indiana makes the road ahead more challenging," #NeverTrump senior adviser Rory Cooper said in a statement. "We will continue to seek opportunities to oppose his nomination and to draw a clear line between him and the values of the conservative cause. If nominated, he will lose in historic fashion; threaten down-ballot campaigns and likely usher in a Clinton presidency."

Even after Kasich signaled last week he wouldn't compete in Indiana as part of a quasi-alliance with Cruz's campaign, the Texas senator couldn't catch Trump in polls. Kasich instead focused on the Oregon and Washington primaries later this month. Despite Cruz's exit, Kasich's campaign reiterated he will remain in the race. However, Kasich has carried only one state — his home of Ohio — and remains fourth in delegates. He's behind even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who withdrew in March.

"Ted Cruz ran a strong campaign, stood for conservative principles and exposed a lot about Donald Trump. Governor Kasich will continue to campaign and offer the voters a clear choice for our country," the governor's chief strategist, John Weaver, wrote in a memo to reporters.

Cruz had tried to salvage his White House hopes by naming onetime rival Carly Fiorina as his running mate last week. The unusual move, however, didn't boost his numbers in the state. And while he had the backing of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican's lukewarm endorsement didn't give him the jolt he needed, either.

Trump trotted out key Hoosier State endorsements of his own, including legendary (and controversial) former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight.

The GOP race devolved into even more vitriol Tuesday on the campaign trail, underscoring just why many Republicans worry about the volatility of Trump as their general-election nominee.

Trump began doubling down on a tabloid story that alleged Cruz's father had ties to President John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. In response, Cruz blasted Trump as a "pathological liar, "utterly amoral" and a "narcissist."

Katie Packer, chair of the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, said in a statement that comments like those are why the group will continue to press on.

"A substantial number of delegates remain up for grabs in this highly unpredictable year," Packer said. "In addition, there is more than a month before the California primary — more time for Trump to continue to disqualify himself in the eyes of voters, as he did yet again today spreading absurd tabloid lies about Ted Cruz's father and the JFK assassination."

Sanders beats Clinton, but math to nomination remains daunting

On the Democratic side, Sanders notched a 5-point win over Clinton. It was an important victory for the Vermont senator, especially given the former secretary of state's near-sweep of last week's Northeastern states and her win in New York before that. Polls had shown the Hoosier State was close between the two but had given Clinton a narrow lead.

But ultimately, the close results don't change the daunting math for the Sanders campaign. Even with his victory, the closer results and proportional allocation of delegates mean both Sanders and Clinton could end up getting roughly the same number of pledged delegates. Essentially, it won't blunt Clinton's more than 300 pledged-delegate lead.

Sanders now needs 66 percent of all remaining pledged delegates for a pledged majority. When superdelegates are included, he needs 85 percent of the remaining delegates. Clinton is 92 percent of the way to the 2,383 she needs to clinch the Democratic nomination. She needs just 34 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to get a pledged majority, and just 15 percent of all delegates, including superdelegates, to win.

The Sanders campaign's message lately has been that they will work to woo superdelegates to their side. But as NPR's Arnie Seipel has calculated, even if all superdelegates voted the way their states did, Clinton would still have a 200-plus superdelegate lead over Sanders, with a 500 total delegate lead.

"We understand that we have an uphill climb to victory but we have been fighting uphill from the first day of this campaign," Sanders said in a statement after the race was called in his favor. "We are in this campaign to win and we're going to fight until the last vote is cast. There is nothing I would like more than to take on and defeat Donald Trump, someone who must never become president of this country."

Republicans get their top pick in Senate race

In the night's downballot contest of note, Rep. Todd Young won the open GOP Senate primary over fellow Rep. Marlin Stutzman. Young's nomination was preferred by national Republicans over Stutzman, who had a reputation as a rabble-rouser in the House.

Still, Young almost didn't make the ballot at all. Both Democrats and Stutzman worked challenge his signatures and get him ruled ineligible, and he only narrowly survived.

His victory now likely has many in the GOP breathing a bit easier when it comes to keeping retiring Sen. Dan Coats's seat. While it's certainly not a top Senate race yet, the state could become a presidential battleground later, especially with Trump as the likely nominee. Obama carried the state in 2008. Democrats' nominee is former Rep. Baron Hill.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.