01:06 - Source: CNN
Cruz: Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton

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Ted Cruz's campaign is looking at states like Alaska to ring up delegate counts as it struggles against Donald Trump

Cruz once thought a strong Super Tuesday showing would put him on the glide path to clinching the nomination by the end of March

CNN —  

There was a time when Ted Cruz thought Super Tuesday would be the day that he would begin to put away the Republican nomination, winning several of the seven Southern states and emerging in the pole position in a race that he anticipated would end just weeks later.

Two days away from the most important day of Cruz’s bid, the campaign is scrambling to put together new paths to victory, delegate by delegate. In order to counter the momentum for Donald Trump that Cruz has himself called “enormous” and potentially “unstoppable,” the Texas senator’s campaign is increasingly banking on its national ground game to stay in the race into late March and beyond.

One particular, early focus: Alaska, the only March 1 state that Cruz has never visited but is attractive to the campaign. Cruz and his allies are now eyeing caucus states like Alaska as places that can reward candidates with strong organizations and loyal grassroots followings like Cruz. The state has only 28 delegates, is notoriously hard to survey and has a small number of polling places. But a win there would be a validation that Cruz has broader appeal outside the South.

“It’s very much an anti-big government, anti-Washington, strong libertarian tendencies. They’ve got a lot of conservative leaders come out of Alaska,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Cruz, who is drawing the same lands rights contrast that he did with Trump in Nevada. “I think it demographically really stacks up well for us.”

The Cruz campaign still believes that the GOP nominating contest will be done or close to done by March 31, after which the calendar becomes much less friendly to insurgent candidates like the Texas senator. And other Republican leaders worried about Donald Trump think his momentum needs to be thwarted by March 15, when winner-take-all contests begin and Trump could vacuum up enormous delegate hauls on single days.

That puts the Cruz campaign at a crossroads. They trail Trump in nearly every southern Super Tuesday state: Do they go for broke, and empty their field-leading $38 million warchest not only before March 1, but also in the weeks before March 15? Or do they adopt a longer view, patiently hugging its cash in order to chip away at Trump and Marco Rubio in a fight that could last all the way to the Republican convention in Cleveland.

“We’ve added a lot to our media buying this week,” Miller said, “and also we recognize that the contest is not going to be over on March 1st.”

The Cruz campaign certainly isn’t forfeiting any territory in the SEC states, barnstorming them in a rapid four-day trip that began here on Friday morning. And the campaign has particular hope in a pair beyond Texas that Cruz will visit Sunday and will be the focus in the final push: Oklahoma and Arkansas, two states that the campaign believes they can win outright, one Cruz adviser said.

But this weekend, the campaign began recruiting volunteers for March 15 states like North Carolina and Ohio, asking its “Texas Strike Force” that it deployed in each early state to “adapt” “to face the challenges of the changing campaign calendar.”

They have been one of the most aggressive campaigns in the U.S. territories, hoping for easy wins in far-flung lands that moves them toward the eight contests a Republican candidate must win in order to be nominated under Republican convention rules. And two of the first state chairs they hired were in New Jersey and California – two states that don’t vote until June.

“Should this race go as long as California, we have a giant head start on the other candidates,” said Ron Nehring, the former head of the California Republican Party who now leads Cruz’s campaign there.

Big bet on Texas

Much of the campaign’s fate, allies concede, depends on how well Cruz does in his home state, home to 155 delegates and one that Cruz is making a surprising play to shore up before Tuesday. Although favored to win, both the Rubio and Trump campaigns smell blood, and are hoping to embarrass Cruz by limiting his haul in a state he’s called the “crown jewel” of Super Tuesday.

“If Senator Cruz loses the state of Texas, it’s going to be very, very difficult for him to justify staying in the race,” Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, said Thursday.

Those looking to stop Cruz have hoisted expectations as high as possible for Cruz, arguing that it’s almost ridiculous to ponder later states than March 1 given how open Cruz has been for a half-year about the scale of his ambitions on Tuesday.

“He bet the ranch that he’s going to win Texas and he’s going to win a bunch of Southern states – and we’ve all believed him,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committeeman who is backing Rubio. “How can you build a campaign to dominate on March 1st, and it’s not do-or-die?

Months ago, campaign officials previously pointed to Missouri, the home state of Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, as a plausible victory. Other top allies have been excited about Rubio’s own Florida, seeing a potential opening in a cluttered race.

Now, the Cruz campaign’s best chances, in the eyes of observers, rest more on caucus states – and the two weeks between Super Tuesday and March 15 is full of them. Cruz is expected to compete in other southern contests – including Louisiana on March 5 and Mississippi on March 8 – and caucus contests like Kentucky could be attractive to them without Rand Paul in the race (Steve Munisteri, a former senior Paul adviser, said there was no chance that Paul would endorse.)

But people skeptical about Cruz’s chances think that if Cruz flops on Tuesday, whatever masterstrokes he has planned for later in March won’t matter.

“The SEC was supposed to be his insurance policy,” Munisteri said. “This was supposed to be his big night Tuesday, and I don’t see it.”

Sara Murray contributed to this report