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In Arizona and Utah, Cruz almost faces Trump alone

For months, Ted Cruz has been begging for a two-man race with Donald Trump. On Tuesday, he'll get a ballot test of the closest thing yet. 

In Arizona and Utah, Republican primary voters will have their clearest choice so far between Cruz, the U.S. senator Texas, and Trump, the billionaire frontrunner. Fifty-eight delegates are up for grabs in Arizona's primary and 40 in Utah's caucuses. 

Of course, it's not that simple. Ohio Gov. John Kasich remains in the race, complicating Cruz's hopes for a one-on-one matchup. In Arizona, early voting has been underway for weeks, meaning the overall outcome Tuesday could reflect a more fractured anti-Trump field than currently exists. 

Cruz's prospects in the two contests received a boost Monday when word got out that Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, had recorded robocalls for the Texas senator in Arizona and Utah. Three days earlier, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, announced he intended to vote for Cruz in the Utah caucuses. 

"This is the time for Republicans across the spectrum to unite behind Ted Cruz," Romney says in the call for the Beehive State. "He is the only Republican candidate who can defeat Donald Trump, and at this point, a vote for John Kasich is a vote for Donald Trump."

Cruz's campaign believes he is poised to win Utah — hopefully with more than 50 percent of the vote, which would allow him to collect all 40 of the state's delegates. That could happen, according to a poll released Saturday that found Cruz easily leading the GOP pack with 53 percent. Kasich had 29 percent, while Trump was last with 11 percent.Cruz has done little to tamp down on expectations in Utah, telling a radio host there Monday he is in a "very strong position" and expects to do "very, very well." Campaigning Friday in Arizona, Cruz touted having a "big, big lead" in Utah. 

"I think Ted Cruz is very likely to do quite well," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. "I think the only question is whether he gets above 50 percent.”

Earlier Monday, Cruz won the support of Gov. Gary Herbert, with whom Cruz met while campaigning Saturday in the state. At a rally in Provo, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a former Rubio supporter, announced his intent to vote for Cruz in the caucuses. Earlier this month, Cruz secured the backing of the state's junior U.S. senator, Mike Lee.

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Despite Cruz's growing endorsement list, he could still face an obstacle in Kasich, who could keep Cruz from crossing the winner-take-all threshold in the Beehive State. Kasich's campaign and allies have been making a serious play for Utah, pushing back on the suggestion they should cede it to the Texas senator — or even more, step aside altogether to make way for a showdown between Cruz and Trump.

"The group of people suggesting John Kasich should get out of the race are the same people who said he should get out after South Carolina then turned around and thanked him for winning Ohio," said Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for the pro-Kasich super PAC New Day for America. "While D.C. insiders think this is a game, we still believe elections are about who is the best choice to be president of the United States, and we're running accordingly."

While it is confident it can win Utah, Cruz's campaign is less certain of its chances in Arizona, where early voting has been going on since Feb. 24. Cruz's campaign estimates more than half the vote is already in, much of it conducted when the field of non-Trump candidates was more splintered.

"We get to election day, there’s going to be a lot of votes cast for candidates who aren’t in the race," said Constantin Querard, Cruz's Arizona state director. "Those people are going to wish they had their votes back."

Cruz's campaign and its allies have done anything but write off Arizona. The campaign went on the air there more than a week ago, before the first winner-take-all contests on March 15, and pro-Cruz super PACs are spending $380,000 on TV advertising in the state. Cruz spent Friday in the state, a trip that included a tour of Arizona's border with Mexico, before returning Sunday for a last-minute stop at a church in a suburb of Phoenix.

After the event in Peoria, Arizona, Cruz conceded to reporters Trump will have likely won the early vote but expressed confidence he could close the gap Tuesday. "Arizona, the early vote has favored Donald Trump, but the election day polling shows us with a lead," Cruz said.

Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday in Arizona, while the caucus in Utah begins at 7 p.m.

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Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Texas Tribune

Sen. Ted Cruz gives victory speech at his election night party in Stafford, Texas on March 1, 2016.