Big weekend on tap for Republicans in Colorado, Michigan

Story highlights

  • Cruz is dominating the behind-the-scenes race for delegates at state conventions like the recent one in North Dakota
  • Colorado's delegates could be an especially valuable prize at the convention this year if the nomination is contested

Arvada, Colorado (CNN)With a contested Republican convention looming, the fierce fight for delegates shifts to the key states of Colorado and Michigan this weekend, just as Donald Trump is scrambling to match the formidable delegate wrangling operation of Ted Cruz.

While Trump holds a wide lead over Cruz in the delegate count, the prospects for either candidate to win the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination is looking increasingly slim after Cruz's win in Wisconsin. And the Texas senator is dominating the complex, behind-the-scenes race for delegates at state conventions like the recent one in North Dakota.
    Colorado's state convention appears to be following that pattern. Cruz is scheduled to appear Saturday and John Kasich's campaign is sending former New Hampshire senator John E. Sununu as his surrogate, but Trump has decided to remain in New York and does not have a representative scheduled to speak on his behalf at the convention.
    "I don't know if Donald Trump has an operation here," said Congressman Ken Buck, the chair of Cruz's statewide effort here. "If they do, I haven't seen it."
    The state's delegates could be an especially valuable prize at the convention this year if the nomination is contested, because many of the delegates may not be bound to any one candidate. When they signed up to run as delegates in Colorado, they had a choice to pledge their allegiance to a candidate on the form they filled out, but they also could run as an unpledged delegate -- essentially making them free agents at the convention.
    Colorado delegates who pledge to support a candidate must vote for that candidate on the 1st ballot at the convention. After that -- on a second or third ballot and beyond -- they would be free to vote for any candidate.
    The delegate race in Colorado morphed into a complex, multi-layered endeavor for the GOP campaigns when the state decided not to hold a presidential caucus or primary because of the cost.
    Instead of holding a statewide contest where voters could weigh in on the presidential contenders, the state party members are the kingmakers here. This week, they are in the process of choosing their final slate of convention delegates through a byzantine system of tiered elections that began in February at the precinct and county level. The final list of 37 delegates will be tallied on Saturday when party members gather in Colorado Springs for their state convention.
    Each of Colorado's seven congressional districts gets to select three delegates, and that voting is taking place this week at a series of gatherings. Last weekend, Cruz netted six delegates at the first two congressional district conventions. On Thursday night in Arvada -- just outside of Denver -- another three delegates said they were pledged to Cruz, as were two of the alternates. A third alternate is unpledged, but leaning toward the Texas senator.
    Cruz's strong showing continued on Friday when he picked up three more delegates to the convention from the 5th Congressional District. Though the candidates had the option to run as "unpledged," all three delegates and the three alternates who were elected officially pledged to support Cruz on the first ballot, according to Colorado GOP party officials.
    On Saturday, the party will choose 13 statewide delegates at a Colorado Springs arena where some 600 candidates will get 10 seconds to make their pitches. Cruz is heavily favored to net the most pledged delegates in Colorado, according to political operatives here.
    Cruz's team has been recruiting delegate candidates and building their preferred delegate slates since late last year -- seeking out well-known local political figures who would have enough name recognition to win, and courting delegate candidates who have attended previous Republican National Conventions and would be familiar with the floor rules.
    Ed Brookover, an adviser to the Trump campaign, noted that Colorado's process is even longer than that of Iowa and North Dakota, and said that picking up Colorado delegates had never been part of their strategy to reach 1,237.
    "We have a team on the ground there," Brookover said. "They'll be meeting with delegates and working it from the volunteer and staff side."
    Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski fired Trump's Colorado state director, James Baker, shortly before this week's state convention.

    Choosing delegates in Michigan

    Michigan Republicans will meet Friday and Saturday for their party's state convention, where they will decide the delegates for July's Republican National Convention -- and the campaigns will be keeping an eye on any possible attempts to steal votes or plant double-agents in the delegation.
    The splits for the vote on the first ballot at the Republican convention have already been determined by the results of the Michigan primary -- 25 delegates for Trump and 17 each for Cruz and Kasich.
    The actual 59 people traveling to Cleveland will consist of 42 from congressional districts in the state (14 for each candidate), with the other 17 to be proposed by party leaders and voted on Saturday.
    Delegates are pledged to vote for certain candidates on the first ballot, but other state conventions have been roiled by efforts of the Cruz campaign to plant backers of the Texas Republican in the delegation in case there is no winner in round one.
    To limit any fighting, Michigan GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said Wednesday she will try to ensure the 17 delegates the state party leaders put forward are delegates that support the candidate they must vote for on the first ballot. The party asked candidates for national delegate slots to fill out forms stating who they supported.
    Former state party Chairman Saul Anuzis is helping direct Cruz's efforts in the state. He downplayed any expectations that they would pick up additional delegates to vote Cruz on a second or third ballot at the national convention.
    "What you usually have is a pretty fair allocation, so I don't see a lot of gamesmanship being played there," Anuzis said. "Obviously I would prefer to see people's second choice be Cruz, but that would be sort of a natural selection process."

    Cruz chasing big donors in Las Vegas

    While Cruz's team is focused on delegate selection in Colorado and Michigan this weekend, the Texas senator will also make his most aggressive play to win over the nation's top GOP financiers, who have so far proved elusive.
    Now that the field has winnowed to Trump and just a few alternatives, Cruz is making a push to win over the donors who can cut six- and seven-digit checks to groups supporting his campaign.
    Cruz speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday afternoon, but he'll spend the time before and after attempting to energize the practiced fundraisers who collected $100,000 or more for his campaign this quarter.
    He is also expected to drop by a summit hosted by his super PAC, which will unfold in separate rooms with separate panels but is equally as interested in securing dollars from donors who may today identify as more anti-Trump than pro-Cruz.
    A key potential player this weekend at The Venetian in Las Vegas is the casino's owner, Sheldon Adelson. The gambling magnate has long been comfortable with Cruz, but he has remained on the sidelines rather than investing his vast fortunes into the Republican campaign.
    Adelson's aides may attend the Cruz briefings, but Adelson has indicated an openness to Trump in recent months, even though Trump's positions on Israel have at times rankled some prominent Jewish donors.