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Texas Gov. endorsement boosts Cruz – if he's willing to attack Trump

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David Becker/Reuters

(Read caption) Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks before a rally for his 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada on February 22, 2016.

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott will endorse Senator Ted Cruz for president, his campaign announced Wednesday, giving the conservative candidate his first major endorsement days after Donald Trump's Nevada caucus win sent a strong message to his squabbling competitors: The rules of the game are changing, again.

"After 8 years of relentless attacks on our values from this White House, it's our duty as Texas conservatives to support a leader we can trust to restore our values and move this country forward," Gov. Abbott says in a video explaining his already-anticipated support for Sen. Cruz, his former employee during Cruz's days as Texas solicitor general. 

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Abbott will formally announce the endorsement at 1 PM in Houston, CNN reported, giving Cruz his first gubernatorial or senatorial stamp of approval before his home state Republicans vote in the Super Tuesday primaries next week. Political commentators have pinned home state races as the make-or-break moments for remaining Republican establishment candidates Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Ohio Governor John Kasich to stay in the race as they try to battle Donald Trump's increasingly convincing lead.

Day to day, however, the three appear to be fighting each other far more than Mr. Trump, strategies formulated months ago when they assumed the New York billionaire with questionably conservative values could not possibly win, making other candidates race to be the last man standing, as it were, to defeat him. 

Cruz and Rubio have each tried to frame the remaining race as a two-man affair between themselves and The Donald. Yet Rubio may have the better claim, now that Jeb Bush's exit has helped drive nervous Republicans into his camp. Since Friday, the Florida senator has collected a dozen more endorsements from governors and fellow senators, compared to Cruz's one.

"The sooner we can coalesce, the better we're going to be as a party in general," Rubio told Fox on Sunday. 

The notion that either candidate could trump Trump was dealt a hard blow on Tuesday, however, when Nevada's Republicans did exactly what establishment experts hoped they wouldn't: chose the mogul and media personality by more than a third. Trump took home 46 percent, versus Rubio and Cruz's near tie at 24 and 21.4 percent, respectively.

Cruz may face a surprisingly tough battle in Texas, too. A mid-February poll found that Cruz had support from 37 percent of likely primary voters in his home state, while Trump lurked close behind at 29 percent, and Rubio at 15.

The rules of the Texas primary make a more decisive win especially important: The state's delegates are awarded proportionally, unless one candidate wins not only the state as a whole, but in every congressional district, too.

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The best way to win Texas, and the nomination, is to go after Trump before he himself coalesces larger support, political analysts say.

"If one of the two senators wants to be the nominee, they have to put their squabbling aside and start focusing on taking down Trump," Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told the Monitor. "I expect to see a glimpse of that in Houston at the debate on Thursday."

Cruz has occasionally criticized the front-runner, such as his much-criticized "New York values" jab during a January debate, and ads calling out Trump's use of eminent domain. But, like Rubio, he's seemed hesitant to do much more. In some ways, the rise of Trump even seemed poised to play to his advantage.  

"Trump made Cruz look reasonable by comparison; the establishment might feel compelled to try to take down Trump and let Cruz escape unscathed," National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote on Wednesday. But

Trump has devastated Cruz in an area that was supposed to be a strength — his appeal to voters disgusted with Washington who want an outsider. Trump is absolutely romping among these voters, and couple that with the mogul’s strength among evangelicals, and he is taking a hatchet to the supports of Cruz’s campaign.