In their efforts to derail Donald Trump from the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are all facing enormous pressure in their home state primaries, which account for about a fourth of the delegates up for grabs in the next three weeks.
Failure to defend their turf could leave each explaining what states they can win going forward — and make the New York billionaire look all the more inevitable.
After Trump's impressive win in Nevada, the presidential race now shifts to a dozen states on Super Tuesday. That includes Texas, with 155 delegates — the biggest prize of any contest that day.
Another test looms March 15, with primaries in Florida, with 99 delegates, and Ohio with 66 — those states are winner-take-all.
If no one can dent Trump's advantage by then, the race for the nomination may be all but over. But home states have buoyed candidates in the past. Four years ago, eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney used his native Michigan to quash a surprisingly stout challenge from Rick Santorum. Newt Gingrich won his home state of Georgia and neighboring South Carolina but did little elsewhere.
Of the trio with looming home-state primaries, Cruz may be in the strongest position.
"I'm curious how many reporters ask Marco Rubio, after losing four states in a row, 'So when do you drop out? When? You haven't won a state'," Cruz said after a Houston-area rally Wednesday. "To win, you've got to win states, you've got to win delegates."
But Cruz will have to win more than just Texas on Tuesday if he doesn't want to be looking up at Trump in the delegate count.
The Texas senator has spent more time in the South than his rivals and built networks of supporters he hopes can not only help him in Texas but also nearby states. That approach did not work in South Carolina, the only Southern state where it has been tested.
Cruz has for years been considered his state's most popular politician and Gov. Greg Abbott, his friend, mentor and ex-boss, endorsed him on Wednesday.
Cruz also has the backing of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and current Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, along with nearly one-fourth of the Republicans representing Texas in Congress and about half of the Republicans in the state Legislature. He's also built a strong ground game, boasting 27,000 volunteers, but a similarly strong organization didn't spell victory in South Carolina.
Texas may not have a decisive winner, unless the top candidate can get a majority of the votes cast statewide and in each congressional district. Otherwise, delegates will be awarded proportionally based on full-state results and results in each district.
The only campaign or outside group advertising in Texas so far supports Rubio. Ads by the Conservative Solutions PAC tag Cruz as "calculated, underhanded." Still, polls suggest Cruz is the favorite.
"He's a native-son candidate," GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said. "Support for him is very strong."
Kasich and Rubio, meanwhile, may be battling for many of the same votes from traditional Republicans uneasy with the bombastic Trump and the firebrand conservative Cruz. As long as both remain in the race, they could continue to split the establishment bloc. And they'll have to run Tuesday's gauntlet before they can even reach must-wins at home.