Florida offers reminder of Cruz's tough slog ahead

Story highlights

  • GOP leaders in Florida selected 15 of their 99 delegates
  • Picking up delegates has been a strength for Cruz

Hialeah, Florida (CNN)If Wyoming's victory and a strong showing in Georgia boosted the morale among Ted Cruz supporters on Saturday, Florida proves a reminder that it's going to be a tough fight to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from front-runner Donald Trump.

GOP leaders in Florida selected 15 of their 99 delegates, all of whom were pledged to vote for Trump through three ballots at the Republican National Convention in July.
    But former rival Marco Rubio, who ended his presidential bid, did well here in the battle over so-called "double agents" -- delegates committed to voting for one candidate but who actually support another -- that has had Trump crying foul for weeks. These delegates are free to vote against Trump on convention rules, possibly elevating Cruz, John Kasich or even a nominee not in the race right now.
    Picking up delegates has been a strength for Cruz for almost a month now, and he continued placing his supporters into Trump delegate slots throughout Georgia on Saturday.
    But the largely Cuban-American crowd that jammed into the Oliva Cigar Company, located just outside Miami, demonstrated that Rubio could be a player at the Cleveland convention, too. Of the 15 delegates selected Saturday, three were members of Rubio's Florida leadership team and two were top party leaders supporting Rubio. No Cruz or Trump supporters could be found on the list.
    Rubio is holding onto his 173 delegates, making his team one of the most important blocs of supporters heading to the national convention.
    "He's holding on to them for the same thing as Kasich: for strategy, for leverage," said Gaetano Rivana, a Trump supporter who lost his bid for one of the 15 seats. He said afterward that the system was "rigged."
    Cruz's campaign director in Miami, Manny Roman, who is also the vice chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, said the support for Rubio runs deep in his hometown, but many conservatives were unhappy with his performance in Washington.
    "I voted for Rubio in 2010, and this time around I decided to support the conservative who went to Washington and did what they said they were going to do," he said.
    The Cruz campaign's focus in Florida now, he said, is convincing those Rubio supporters to unite behind Cruz in Cleveland with one-on-one lobbying. Roman said he wasn't prepared to say who he was lobbying, but said he began working immediately yesterday after the delegates were selected.
    "Some of the delegates that were selected yesterday I know very, very well," Roman said. "It's about talking to these folks."
    Dozens of Cuban-American Republicans filtered through the jam-packed lobby here. They included top supporters of Rubio and numerous candidates for delegates who seemed resigned to the fact that neither of Florida's native sons -- Rubio or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- would be on the ballot.
    Saturday's selection process lacked the hallmarks of other delegate fights -- harried delegate wranglers racing around convention halls and big-name surrogates plying party leaders in private meetings.
    Instead, party leaders met behind closed doors and interviewed prospective delegates one-by-one.
    Former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a good friend of Rubio's who served with him in the Florida statehouse dodged when asked if he would have trouble supporting Trump.
    "I am an avid supporter of anyone who is the nominee of this party," said Rivera, who lost his bid for delegate.
    When asked whether he considered himself a Trump or Cruz supporter now, he began singing, "Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be."
    Even though Trump is assured support through three ballots from Florida delegates (one of the longest commitments from any state), his supporters were still parked across the street, protesting the closed selection process Saturday and chanting "99 for Trump!"
    As they walked into the private interviews Saturday, delegate candidates were first asked if they could support whoever won their district before plunging into a litany of questions about service to the Republican Party and other qualifications.
    Jessica Fernandez, president of the Miami Young Republicans, won a delegate seat from the 24th District. Even though she supported Rubio and was a member of his Florida leadership team, she said she was ready to follow the rules in Cleveland.
    "The first question was, 'Do you pledge to support Donald Trump for the first three ballots, because that's what you're here to do?' And I had to say yes," Fernandez said.
    Playing by the rules has become the mantra of Republican Party stalwarts, from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus down through the ranks amid an ongoing assault from Trump accusing them of using a "rigged" system.
    But Fernandez was still angry at the complaints from Trump and his supporters.
    "We could all say that this is not fair, but there are people who have been grinding this and working on the rules and have been part of this process for many years, or maybe a few years, but they got involved in the process more than six months ago. And if that makes you 'establishment,' so be it," she said.
    Unlike in Wyoming and Georgia, it was hard to find any clear victories for Cruz in Florida Saturday.