LAS VEGAS (AP) - Donald Trump notched a win in Nevada's Republican caucuses on Tuesday as Marco Rubio bid to elbow out Ted Cruz for second place in an increasingly urgent effort to slam the brakes on the Trump juggernaut.
Trump now has three straight victories -- in the West, the South and Northeast -- a testament to his broad appeal among the mad-as-hell voters making their voices heard in the 2016 presidential race.
Six in 10 caucus goers said they were angry with the way the government is working, and Trump got about half of those angry voters, according to preliminary results of an entrance poll.
Nevada was a critical test for Rubio and Cruz, the two senators battling to emerge as the clear alternative to the GOP front-runner. Rubio was out to prove he can build on recent momentum, while Cruz was looking for a spark to recover from a particularly rocky stretch in his campaign.
Rubio, already campaigning in Michigan as caucus results rolled in, was projecting confidence that he can consolidate the non-Trump voters who have been splintering among an assortment of GOP candidates, saying, "we have incredible room to grow."
Cruz, a fiery conservative popular among voters on the GOP's right, finished a disappointing third in South Carolina after spending much of the past two weeks denying charges of dishonest campaign tactics and defending his integrity. Another disappointing finish in Nevada would raise new questions about his viability heading into a crucial batch of Super Tuesday states on March 1.
"There's something wrong with this guy," Trump said with his usual measure of tact during a massive Las Vegas rally Monday night. The former reality television star tweeted on Tuesday, "He used him as a scape goat-fired like a dog! Ted panicked."
Nevada's caucusing played out in schools, community centers and places of worship across the state -- a process that's been chaotic in the past.
Count Tracy Brigida, fed up after her husband was laid off from his mining job, among those caucusing for Trump.
"I want a businessman to run the biggest business in the world," Brigida said as she caucused at a Las Vegas high school.
Jeremy Haight drove straight from his marketing job to caucus for Marco Rubio at the same high school.
"He's the most level-headed. He hasn't said anything stupid or crazy ... which is really what I think the country needs," Haight said.
It was Cruz for Megan Ortega, who declared: "He's consistent, he's bold and he's a class act."
Preliminary results of the entrance poll found that about 3 in 10 early caucus goers said the quality that mattered most to them in choosing a candidate was that he shares their values, slightly more than the quarter who said they want a candidate who can win in November. About a quarter said they want a candidate who can bring change. About 2 in 10 want one who "tells it like it is."
Nevada state marks the first Republican election in the West, the fourth of the campaign. And it's not one that's gotten much attention from the GOP candidates.
Through Tuesday, the Republican candidates and the super PACs supporting them had spent a combined $3.8 million on television and radio advertisements in Nevada -- less than a tenth of the $39.3 million spent ahead of last weekend's South Carolina primary, according to Kantar Media's CMAG data.
That primary reduced a GOP field that included a dozen candidates a month ago to five, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush the latest to drop out after a disappointing finish in South Carolina. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson remain in the race and could play spoilers as the trio of leading candidates, Trump, Cruz and Rubio, battle for delegates with an increasing sense of urgency.
Trump's rivals concede they are running out of time to stop him.
The election calendar suggests that if the New York billionaire's rivals don't slow him by mid-March, they may not ever. Trump swept all of South Carolina's 50 delegates, giving him a total of 67 compared to Cruz and Rubio who have 11 and 10, respectively.
There are 30 delegates at stake in Nevada, awarded to candidates in proportion to their share of the statewide vote so long as they earn at least 3.33 percent. While proportional contests give Trump's weaker rivals a chance to accumulate delegates, proportional contests also make it difficult to catch up if one candidate runs up a significant lead.
After finishing third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and second in South Carolina, Rubio needs a win soon to support the idea that he is the prime heir to Bush's supporters.
Indeed, Republican establishment heavyweights have been flooding to Rubio in recent days, including Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. South Florida's three Cuban-American members of Congress announced their support for him in the hours before the Nevada contest.
The entrance poll survey was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as Republican voters arrived at 25 randomly selected caucus sites in Nevada.
Benac reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Las Vegas and Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.