By Stephen Collinson
PHILADELPHIA (CNN) –– The raucous 2016 presidential campaign will come into greater clarity on Tuesday as five states could determine whether Republicans are in for a historic convention fight and Democrats are set for a nomination slog lasting into the summer.
The votes in Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and North Carolina are likely the last chance for Republicans to stop front-runner Donald Trump at the voting booth and avert a contested convention. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, must win Democratic primaries in at least three of those states if she hopes to blunt Bernie Sanders’ momentum.
The contests in Ohio and Florida have long loomed as a potentially decisive showdown for Republicans because, unlike previous 2016 clashes that awarded delegates on a proportional basis, the two powerful swing states are holding winner-take-all contests.
With 99 delegates up for grabs in the Sunshine State and 66 going to the winner in the Buckeye sate, there is a chance for Trump to stretch his lead in the delegate race by such a margin that it becomes almost impossible for any of his rivals to catch him.
Political date with destiny
The Florida and Ohio contests also represent a political date with destiny for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, since the Republican candidates will have little rationale to press on with their campaigns if they cannot deliver their home states.
On the other hand, should Rubio pull off a surprise win in Florida and Kasich squeak out victory in a closer race in Ohio, Trump would have a much tougher path to the 1,237 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination.
The billionaire real estate mogul who goes into Tuesday’s pivotal voting in the center of another storm — this time over unrest at his rowdy rallies — has left no doubt that he will claim the right to the GOP nomination if he has a good night in the two swing states on Tuesday.
“I think if I win those two, I think it’s over,” Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week.
Latest polling shows Trump with a big lead in Florida over Rubio. A defeat on home soil could prematurely stifle the promising career of a man with polished political skills who has been viewed by many Republicans as the future of their party.
The billionaire led Rubio 46% to 22% in a Quinnipiac University poll of Florida Republicans published on Monday. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz follows in third place with 14% support, with Kasich at 10%.
The results mirror CNN’s poll of polls in Florida, where Trump leads Rubio by 40% to 26%.
In a Quinnipiac University poll of Ohio also released Monday, Trump and Kasich are tied at 38% while a Monmouth University survey of the Buckeye State has the former reality star trailing Kasich 35% to 40%.
Under some scenarios, a Trump loss to Kasich in Ohio — even if the GOP front-runner wins Florida — could put a speed bump in the billionaire’s path to the nomination and leave open the possibility that establishment support could coalesce behind the Ohio governor.
But Cruz’s strong presence in the race, and hopes on Tuesday of picking up substantial numbers of delegates could continue to help Trump by leaving opposition to him fractured.
Democrats digging in
Democrats, meanwhile, are already digging in for a long struggle, though the electoral mathematics of the race suggest Sanders must start to pull off large victory margins if he is to overtake Clinton’s lead of around 200 pledged delegates.
In fact, as he did last week with an upset win in Michigan, Sanders could grab the headlines on Tuesday by winning in Ohio and elsewhere but fall further behind his rival in the delegate count if she has expected big wins in Florida and North Carolina and runs close in states he wins.
Still, Sanders remains a much more potent threat to Clinton than seemed likely when he launched his campaign last year, and many pundits expected the former first lady to have the nomination in her grasp by now.
“When people come out to vote in large numbers to reclaim their democracy, we win. When voter turnout is low, we lose. Let’s make sure that tomorrow we have a huge voter turnout,” Sanders told supporters in Akron, Ohio on Monday night.
The Clinton camp is banking on the former secretary of state’s edge with minority voters to put large delegate hauls in the bank in North Carolina and Florida.
Yet her rival has high hopes elsewhere as he seeks to test whether his assaults on free trade deals that he blames for economic blight in the industrial Midwest can resonate in Ohio and Illinois as they did in Michigan.
“I think we have a chance in Illinois, Ohio and Missouri. I think North Carolina and Florida will be more difficult,” the Vermont Senator’s wife Jane Sanders told CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” on Monday night.
Clinton is trying to counter the Sanders push on trade as she seeks a way to rationalize her initial support for the huge Trans-Pacific trade deal that she backed as secretary of state only to oppose it when it was finalized while she was a candidate.
“His position is so anti. He is against things before they are even finished, before they are read,” Clinton said at an MSNBC town hall meeting on Monday.
Clinton noted how Sanders was against the 12 -nation deal — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — even before it was completed last year.
“He is just reflexively against anything that has any international implication,” Clinton said.
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