Facing a potential wipeout in U.S. presidential nominating contests on Tuesday, Republicans Ted Cruz and John Kasich teamed up against Donald Trump, setting off a barrage of new attacks from the front-runner who denounced them as desperate, weak and pathetic.
Trump told a cheering crowd in Warwick, Rhode Island, on Monday that he was happy about the partnership. "It shows how weak they are. It shows how pathetic they are."
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas and Trump's closest challenger, said the move was aimed at preventing a Trump nomination that would assure victory for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 presidential election.
The Cruz-Kasich deal was announced on Sunday before a handful of primary elections in several mid-Atlantic states. It is the latest unusual move in what has been a topsy-turvy Republican presidential race in which early favorites fell to political outsider Trump, whose unexpected rise has left establishment Republicans grappling with a new order.
"It's another exciting day in Republican politics," said Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer on MSNBC.
To derail Trump, the Cruz and Kasich campaigns agreed to concentrate their efforts and resources in state contests where each has a better shot. Cruz will focus on Indiana's May 3 primary without competition from Kasich, while Cruz will stand aside in favor of Kasich in Oregon's May 17 primary and New Mexico's June 7 vote.
Trump, who New York billionaire who often talks about being the consummate dealmaker, said his rivals had committed "a horrible act of desperation" by colluding in those states.
"You know, if you collude in business or if you collude in the stock market, they put you in jail,” Trump said in Warwick. "But in politics - because it’s a rigged system, because it’s a corrupt enterprise - in politics, you’re allowed to collude."
"SHAKE THINGS UP"
The move is unique in modern presidential politics and signaled panic after Trump's sweeping victory in the New York primary last week, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"They know he's going to have a great night tomorrow," Sabato said. "If things are not shaken up, Trump's going to be the nominee. They have to do something big to shake things up. They're hoping that this is it. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't."
Cruz said it was Trump who was desperate because he knows he has a difficult path to the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the party's nomination at the Republican National Convention in July.
"I don't doubt that Donald Trump is going to scream and yell and curse and insult and probably cry and whine some as well," Cruz said in Indiana. "That has been Donald's pattern."
Cruz and Kasich, who is Ohio's governor, hope their efforts will weaken Trump in Oregon, Indiana and New Mexico and keep him from securing the delegates he needs to claim the nomination before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.
Kasich, campaigning in Philadelphia, tried to play down the strategy on Monday as simply a way for him to save money by not campaigning in certain areas. He said he was not asking supporters in those places not to vote for him.
"So what? What's the big deal?" Kasich said. "I'm not over there campaigning and spending resources. We have limited resources."
Trump has dominated the nominating contests so far but still faces a tough path to earn the delegates needed to lock up the nomination before the convention. A candidate who wins a state contest sometimes still must win over delegates who often are allocated at separate events. Republicans will pick their delegates in at least four states this weekend, including Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona and Virginia.
Trump said the Cruz-Kasich deal bolstered his contention that the Republican system for choosing delegates is rigged. Party officials have said the rules have long been known.
Spicer said that every campaign has to run its own strategy.
"That's up to them to decide what alliances are good or what kind of strategies they want to employ heading up to Cleveland," he said in an interview with MSNBC.
If no candidate has enough support on the first vote at the national convention, many delegates can switch to another candidate on subsequent ballots.
(Additional reporting by Megan Cassella; Editing by Bill Trott)