WASHINGTON DC: Donald Trump seized the mantle of Republican standard-bearer for the 2016 presidential election late Tuesday, sending his only serious challenger Ted Cruz crashing out of the White House race.
After charging to victory in Indiana, the unorthodox, anti-establishment candidate embraced the role of de facto nominee and trained his sights on the Democrat most likely to face him in the battle for the White House.
“We’re going after Hillary Clinton,” the billionaire real estate mogul told jubilant supporters gathered at Trump Tower in New York to celebrate the victory.
“We’re going to win in November, and we’re going to win big.”
Tuesday’s contest in the mid-western state was the final firewall thrown up by Republican heavyweights to keep their brash, name-calling antagonist from locking in the party’s nomination.
But as the race was called overwhelmingly in Trump’s favor, Cruz conceded to supporters in Indianapolis that he no longer had a viable path forward.
“We left it all on the field in Indiana,” Cruz said as he announced he was suspending his campaign.
“We gave it everything we’ve got, but the voters chose another path.”
It was a stunning denouement for the arch-conservative Texas senator who had insisted he would press on to the final day of the Republican race.
His departure leaves the low-polling Ohio Governor John Kasich as Trump’s only other challenger for the nomination — making it a virtual certainty that Trump will go head to head in a general election match-up with Clinton.
The top echelon of the Republican establishment said as much minutes after Cruz capitulated, with Republican Party chief Reince Priebus declaring Trump the “presumptive” nominee.
“Donald Trump will be presumptive @GOP nominee, we all need to unite and focus on defeating @HillaryClinton,” Priebus said, in an extraordinary embrace of a candidate the party establishment had fought tooth and nail to stop.
Clinton, meanwhile, suffered a shock upset in Indiana as her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders mounted a come-from-behind victory, denying the former secretary of state a feather in her cap as she seeks to claim her party’s nomination.
The self-declared democratic socialist beat Clinton 52.5 per cent to 47.5 per cent, providing a shot in the arm to the Sanders campaign and further justification for staying in a race that team Clinton and many pundits have said is all but finished.
“The Clinton campaign thinks this campaign is over. They’re wrong,” Sanders said in a statement.
“We are in this campaign to win and we’re going to fight until the last vote is cast,” he added.
“There is nothing I would like more than to take on and defeat Donald Trump, someone who must never become president of this country.”
Cruz had been hoping to use the midwestern state to block Trump from gaining the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination ahead of the Republican convention in Cleveland in July.
But the bombastic tycoon — who has thus far defied all political logic to lead the Republican race — swept Cruz aside.
Trump thumped Cruz by about 53.3 per cent to 36.6, with Kasich an Indiana footnote at 7.6 per cent.
With 1,002 delegates to his name, Trump was already in a favorable position to reach the magic number needed to avoid a contested party convention. With Cruz out of the race, crossing the threshold is a foregone conclusion for Trump.
Even before the Indiana results, Trump and Clinton had pivoted toward one another.
“I’m really focused on moving into the general election,” Clinton said confidently Tuesday in West Virginia.
“That’s where we have to be because we are going to have a tough campaign against a candidate who’ll literally say or do anything,” she said of Trump. “We’re going to take him on at every turn.”
Ignoring Clinton’s surprise loss in Indiana, her campaign chairman John Podesta said Trump’s propensity to “bully and divide Americans” could backfire with an electorate looking for economic opportunities and to be kept safe.
“Throughout this campaign, Donald Trump has demonstrated that he’s too divisive and lacks the temperament to lead our nation and the free world,” Podesta said in a statement.
“With so much at stake, Donald Trump is simply too big of a risk.”
Cruz’s exit comes after the primary battle took a nasty turn Tuesday when Trump cited a tabloid report linking Cruz’s father Rafael to John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Trump raised the recent National Enquirer story in his interview with Fox News, prompting an irate Cruz to brand him a “pathological liar.”
“The man is utterly amoral,” said Cruz, adding that “we are staring at the abyss” if Trump wins the White House.