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Cruz's Methodical Delegate Strategy Narrows Trump's Path To GOP Nomination

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at the Colorado Republican State Convention, in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday, where he added 13 more delegate wins to his earlier sweep of 21 state delegates.
Brennan Linsley
Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at the Colorado Republican State Convention, in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday, where he added 13 more delegate wins to his earlier sweep of 21 state delegates.

On the way into the Colorado Republican Party's state convention in Colorado Springs Saturday morning, a Ted Cruz supporter waved a big broom with the letters "CRUZ" fastened to the top.

The convention took place in a hockey arena, and the prop is probably familiar to most sports fans. The Cruz supporter was looking for a sweep, and a sweep was what he got.

Cruz picked up all 34 Republican National Convention delegates that Colorado Republicans awarded this week. Delegates backing Cruz won all three spots in each of the state's seven congressional districts, as well as 13 statewide slots.

The Colorado win follows a similar outcome in North Dakota, where Republicans elected a mostly Cruz-approved slate of delegates at a state convention last week. Those two delegate hauls, along with more complex delegate maneuvering in states like Louisiana that had already held their primaries and caucuses, highlight a growing organizational gap between Cruz's campaign and frontrunner Donald Trump's.

As recently as last month, the Cruz campaign insisted that he was fighting to win 1,237 delegates and clinch the GOP nomination outright, though Cruz told the Denver Post on Saturday that a contested convention is a "very significant possibility." Cruz also expressed confidence that he would win in such a scenario.

The Texas senator has become the candidate of choice for many Republicans simply trying to stop Trump. Cruz's organizational successes offer hope to them that he will succeed in blocking Trump's path. Though many of them stop short of saying they'd like Cruz to be the eventual nominee.

Most political observers didn't figure Colorado would play a role in the Republican primary, after the state declined to hold a binding primary or caucus. Still, Congressman Ken Buck, who chairs Cruz's Colorado campaign, said, "dozens of volunteers have been working since December" in Colorado to vet delegate candidates and organize at local caucuses and regional meetings.

On Saturday morning, Cruz volunteers wearing bright orange shirts swept through the arena, handing out glossy sheets listing the campaign's preferred delegate candidates. The campaign also blasted out text messages to convention attendees, listing their delegate choices.

"We put 15 delegate [candidates] forward," said Buck, who won a spot as a delegate himself. "We looked at people that had run and won in the past. We looked at people who had been supporting Cruz for a long time. We looked at elected officials who knew how to run campaigns."

That organizational effort was a stark contrast to Trump's campaign, which only had a handful of volunteers distributing delegate candidate lists. The Trump slate was riddled with errors.

According to NBC News, the Trump campaign failed to put forward a candidate slate in some of the earlier district-level contests. In another congressional district, two of the candidates they urged voters to back did not, in fact, make it onto the ballot.

"What this says for the Trump campaign is, you need to get your stuff in gear," said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. "Because you're about to get your clock cleaned on the easy stuff. A lot of folks look at, we just won the primary. The isn't about just winning the primary. It's about winning delegates. You get your delegates wherever and however you can."

Indeed, the Trump campaign has made changes in recent days, bringing in longtime Washington operative Paul Manafort to play a role in convention preparation, as well as broader campaign strategy.

Manafort was asked about the result in Colorado on NBC's Meet The Press on Sunday and responded, "I acknowledge that we weren't playing in Colorado and they did."

He went on to criticize the pro-Cruz efforts as too aggressive, making an accusation of "Gestapo tactics" in various local party conventions.

Steele praised the Cruz campaign's organizational efforts, but cautioned against reading too much into the Colorado and North Dakota convention victories when looking forward to a possible Cleveland floor fight.

"Going into a state and grabbing unbound delegates and getting commitments and all that is not the same as going into a convention hall where overlaying everything is the RNC rules," he said.

Having a political and legal staff that understands the party's regulations and guidelines are key, he said, giving the Cruz campaign the advantage on that front.

But Steele argued that another important factor is, "having delegates on the floor and relevant committees," Steele said, primarily the Rules Committee, which will shape the convention proceedings.

"The Trump team is going to be competitive on that front, because they've got a lot of delegates, and the ability to put their people on that committee and have weight on that committee," said Steele.

Both campaigns will spend the next two months gearing up for a historic floor fight. That's because while Trump may still secure the delegates he needs to avoid one, there's no chance he can do so until June 7, the very last day of the primary calendar.

Clarification: This post has been updated to reflect Cruz's recent comments entertaining the notion of a contested convention. An earlier version stated only that Cruz was insisting he would win enough delegates to clinch the GOP nomination before the party's convention in July.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.