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Indiana looms large, but Republican candidates keep an eye on the grand prize: California

Ted Cruz's months of organizational work in California have given him a major head start.

Ted Cruz’s months of organizational work in California have given him a major head start.

(Joe Raymond / Associated Press)

Even as he wages an epic battle in Indiana to smother rival Ted Cruz’s candidacy, Donald Trump set off Thursday for Orange County and the Bay Area, underscoring California’s crucial role in deciding whether the celebrity real estate developer becomes the Republican nominee for president.

Trump’s landslide wins this week in five East Coast states eased his way. But even if he prevails Tuesday in Indiana, Trump still needs a big victory in California’s June 7 primary to capture the 1,237 delegates required to clinch the nomination before the party’s July convention in Cleveland.

“There’s no scenario where California does not figure significantly in Trump’s path to 1,237,” said Josh Putnam, a University of Georgia expert on the nominating process.

California Republicans favor Trump over his opponents, polls show, but he faces many challenges in the race for the state’s 172 delegates.

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For a candidate popular among independents, one of the biggest is that only Republicans can vote in the state’s GOP primary. Last week, Trump recorded a robocall urging nearly 1 million Californians unaffiliated with a party to register as Republicans before the May 23 deadline.

“Time is short, and every vote counts,” he told them.

Trump’s hard line on illegal immigration is sure to play well among Republicans here, especially in Southern California, even if it turns off many other voters. His railing against China and Mexico over trade makes Trump formidable in the Inland Empire and other regions hit hard by job losses.

In the Central Valley, Cruz’s brand of traditional conservative purity could make the Texas senator a more potent force with the region’s evangelical Christians and tea party voters.

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“It’s a lot more like Texas here, and a lot more like Oklahoma, and a lot more like Kansas,” said Mark Abernathy, a veteran Bakersfield GOP operative, naming three states where Cruz defeated Trump.

Last year, Abernathy squired Cruz’s father, pastor Rafael Cruz, to churches in the Central Valley, but he now works as a top Trump volunteer. The elder Cruz planned to campaign for his son Thursday in Ontario and Friday in Fresno.

Cruz’s months of organizational work, led by former state GOP Chairman Ron Nehring, has given him a major head start. Trump just this month hired a California campaign director, Tim Clark, who said his new job was “like skiing down the black-diamond run, but with a blindfold on.”

“It’s a thrilling ride, let me tell you,” he said. “We’ve got a huge body of Trump supporters, and we’ve just got to get them out.”

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The Cruz team has drawn on longtime GOP activists to build a statewide network of volunteers. Cruz has also taken time during heated contests in other states to appear on conservative talk radio in the Central Valley and Southern California.

It sounds small-bore for a White House contest. But party rules award three delegates to the winner in each of California’s 53 congressional districts, a system that rewards an elaborate campaign operation.

“You’ve got to hand it to Cruz — he’s been working it,” said Bakersfield radio host Inga Barks, who had Cruz on her show on KNZR-AM a few weeks ago. “He knows that it’s not just next Tuesday, it’s the Tuesday after that, and the Tuesday after that.”

In a state dominated by Democrats, it doesn’t take many Republican voters to carry a fair number of districts where they are vastly outnumbered. Cruz took a similar approach in the New York primary, targeting Democratic districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, though he failed to win any delegates there.

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In California, Cruz’s campaign has been using voter and consumer data for months to pinpoint its supporters, and volunteers are now calling to prod them to cast ballots, a task Trump’s team only recently began.

For Cruz, “that kind of a targeted effort in California could be really strong,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of consulting firm Political Data Inc.

Cruz, who named Carly Fiorina as his would-be running mate on Wednesday, hopes the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive will draw support at a time when Trump’s derogatory remarks about women are stirring new trouble for the party front-runner.

As California’s GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010, Fiorina fell more than 1 million votes short of Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, but many Republicans in the state view her favorably.

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Buttressing both Cruz and the third candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, will be Our Principles, a super PAC that has been trying to stop Trump from winning the nomination.

“It’s really about running a presidential race with a lot of local tactics in a lot of these districts,” said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento campaign consultant working with the super PAC.

More than two-thirds of California’s voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail, starting on May 9, giving Trump little time to build an organization that can match Cruz’s.

After campaigning Thursday with retired Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight in Evansville, Ind., Trump was scheduled to hold an evening rally in Costa Mesa. On Friday, Trump plans to attend a California Republican Party convention in Burlingame, a suburb near San Francisco International Airport.

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The gathering is drawing all three of the GOP’s White House contenders. After Trump speaks at a Friday luncheon, Kasich will headline dinner. On Saturday, it will be Cruz at the lunch banquet, followed by Fiorina at dinner. Cruz plans to raise money in Montecito before returning to Indiana.

With 10 Republican contests remaining, Trump leads with 994 delegates, followed by Cruz with 566 and Kasich with 153. Only Trump can get to 1,237 by the time voting concludes in about six weeks in California, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and New Mexico.

Cruz and Kasich are counting on Trump falling short of 1,237 delegates on the first vote for a presidential nominee at the Cleveland convention. In subsequent votes, many delegates would be free to choose another candidate, opening the way for a nasty floor flight as Cruz, Kasich and possibly others try to barter their way to the nomination.

If Trump extends his winning streak next week in Indiana, “it’s hard to see how Cruz doesn’t get swamped” in California, said Don Sipple, a campaign strategist for former Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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“They really have to play the grass-roots game,” he said of the Cruz campaign. “That’s their only shot.”

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Twitter: @finneganLAT

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