In a private meeting with his most ardent California supporters, Ted Cruz told them that they are vital to his hopes of snatching the GOP nomination from front-runner Donald Trump.
“Every one of you is critical,” he told about 250 people gathered in a poolside tent here at the California Republican Party’s convention. “The real force of communications is grass-roots and making that case one-on-one, person-to-person, on foreign policy, on economic policy. That is powerful.”
About 650 miles southeast of here, Cruz’s campaign worked methodically to elect friendly delegates at the Arizona GOP’s gathering in Mesa, even though Trump clobbered Cruz in the state’s March primary.
The Cruz camp is focusing on the convention because it’s the only way he can win.
After being virtually shut out of delegates in recent primaries in the Northeast, Cruz has been mathematically eliminated from clinching the nomination during the primary season. His only hope is blocking Trump from winning 1,237 delegates — the majority threshold — and flipping delegates’ votes in Cleveland.
Cruz faces an uphill battle, but political observers say that Cruz’s two-pronged strategy — the public, traditional electioneering and the under-the-radar, arcane delegate pursuit — is a major reason he remains in the hunt.
“There has been a ruthless attention to detail by the Cruz campaign, and I think it’s paying off,” said Kevin Spillane, a GOP strategist who backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio until he dropped out. “It’s one of the reasons he still has a chance.”
The two strategies played out simultaneously Saturday.
In Burlingame, more than 1,000 of the California Republican Party’s leaders and most committed activists gathered. Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich also addressed the group, but Cruz’s campaign was dominant.
Dozens of volunteers wearing red shirts reading “Team Cruz California” collected voters’ addresses and emails, urged people to sign commitment cards and handed out circular Cruz stickers. Cruz touted his running mate Carly Fiorina and rolled out the endorsement of former Gov. Pete Wilson.
“California is going to decide this Republican primary,” Cruz told a luncheon audience. “It will be a battle on the ground.”
Cruz has called California “the big enchilada,” the decisive final primary on June 7 that offers a trove of 172 delegates. But just as crucial to his campaign are Republican confabs in states that voted weeks ago, such as Arizona.
Cruz lost last month’s Arizona primary to Trump by more than 20 points. That ensures that all 58 of the state’s delegates to the national convention in Cleveland will back the billionaire real estate developer in the first round of voting for the nomination.
But if Trump does not secure a majority of delegates on that first ballot, Arizona’s delegates become “unbound,” allowing them to switch their allegiances. In state after state — such as South Carolina and Georgia — Cruz’s campaign has outmaneuvered Trump, making sure loyalists to the Texas senator secured delegate slots.
“It’s incumbent on us to recruit as many people that we can that would have Cruz as their second choice,” said Saul Anuzis, a Cruz operative who works on the campaign’s delegate tracking operation.
That strategy continued Saturday.
On a grassy hill outside the Mesa convention center, Cruz supporters formed an orderly line. Volunteers in neon yellow T-shirts distributed information packets, color-coded by congressional district, on the day’s proceedings.
A couple of yards away, Trump supporters swarmed a table set up by the campaign, jostling for signs, T-shirts and the list of delegate candidates vowing to support Trump. The setup was unruly; early into the morning, the campaign had revised its delegate slate multiple times. Frustrated campaign volunteers fretted they were causing confusion for Trump backers looking for guidance on who to vote for.
For Cruz, the advance planning was evident in one congressional district gathering Saturday morning, where three Cruz-backed delegates were chosen to go to Cleveland.
“It was a total Cruz sweep,” said Domingos Santos, a small business owner from Gilbert.
The results made Santos uneasy; he believed delegates at the national convention should follow the intent of primary voters.
“What we’re seeing here today is delegates that are being elected … are not Donald Trump delegates,” Santos said. “The will of 249,000 people [who voted for Trump] will not be represented accurately.”
Later Saturday, the Trump camp cried foul about an online voting system used to elect the state’s 28 at-large delegates. Trump backers secured only two slots, which Jeff DeWit, who chairs Trump’s Arizona campaign, attributed to a glitchy, never-before-used process.
“We are very unhappy, and the Trump campaign is absolutely filing a grievance,” DeWit said, but did not specify where they would submit such a complaint.
Trump and his campaign have repeatedly blasted the system as corrupt and rigged, as they have been outmaneuvered in the delegate game.
The Cruz campaign said that the system was not rigged, but Trump had failed to learn the rules of the game.
Ultimately, at least 35 out of 55 Arizona delegates up for election Saturday were sympathetic to Cruz.
Mehta reported from Burlingame and Mason from Mesa, Ariz.