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North Dakota stands at the center of the Republican nominating battle this weekend

The state's delegates will remain free agents going to the convention, meaning they could easily swing the nomination

Fargo, North Dakota CNN  — 

It’s political boom time in North Dakota, a state that stands at the center of the Republican nominating battle this weekend.

With 25 free agent delegates in play Sunday and the race to 1,237 – the number needed to win the Republican presidential nomination outright before July’s convention – perilously close, the three remaining Republican campaigns are shining a rare bit of attention on this state of 750,000. But unlike other states, it’s not enough to win one contest here – the state’s delegates will remain free agents going to the convention, meaning they could easily swing the nomination.

State party leaders tapped veterans for their 25 favorites on Saturday, nominating Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, state lawmakers and a former party chairman. But other state delegates, including at least one who said he was committed to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, submitted their names for consideration, setting up a battle for the final delegate selection Sunday.

In the meantime, the campaigns and their top surrogates fanned out across Scheels Arena here on Saturday for photos with delegates and one-on-one meetings.

Cruz flew in from Wisconsin briefly to rally the 1,640 state delegates with a short speech that was heavy on knocks against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the respective Democratic and Republican front-runners.

“It’s easy to talk about making America great again,” Cruz told the crowd. “The real question is, do you understand the principles and values that made America great in the first place?”

Retired neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson, who is backing Trump, flew in ahead of his speech Sunday and met with delegates. He warned Saturday that picking anyone other than Trump would likely result in handing the White House to the Democrats.

“If there’s an open convention and it turns out to be someone other than the person that the majority of the people have chosen, obviously that’s going to be like a holiday for the Democrats and they’ll be celebrating in the streets because it will be very hard to consolidate the opinions of everybody who needs to get behind the nominee,” Carson told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on “CNN Newsroom” later in the afternoon.

Every delegate matters

“It’s like a pot of gold. At the margin that’s a huge number. It’s going to be very close obviously in Cleveland,” said former New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey as he hovered near the front of a “hospitality suite” at the Ramada Plaza hotel here Friday night, picking off possible supporters for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

In North Dakota, which is speckled with small towns and governors still request that people call them by their first names, one-on-one “retail” politicking matters.

“If you get to know people they’ll at least hear you out. The first step is getting to know people. At the same time, we’re keeping records on who seems to be with whom so that we don’t lose track,” Humphrey said.

But that number wasn’t quite enough for the candidates to drop everything in Wisconsin, which hosts a winner-take-all battle Tuesday, just two states to the east.

Trump phoned in Friday to the North Dakota radio show co-hosted with the state’s sole member of the House, Rep. Kevin Cramer, and talked fracking and energy for a few minutes. Rumors bubbled that Trump himself might even make an appearance this weekend – and his schedule had an opening Sunday, when the convention selects its national delegates – but state party officials said they did not expect him to show.

Activists, local party chairmen and state lawmakers mixed with contenders for governor, state auditor and other offices, picking from platters of bologna sandwiches and pretzel mix. With a convention battle for the governor’s office expected Saturday – North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple is not seeking re-election – the focus was often local politics.

The shine of the White House battle was unavoidable – Carly Fiorina flew in Friday for Cruz and worked a line of delegates which stretched out of one suite at the Ramada and took photos with their families and signed autographs. And yet none of the three campaigns had their own individual suite for the more than 1,700 state delegates here this weekend, instead sharing them with the state office candidates.

The ground game

Celebrity works, but building a good ground game works better, party leaders said.

“My advice would be have a North Dakota person working with you. Have your North Dakota people working with you. At the end of the day, this presidential race is unique and it is a lot of things, and North Dakotans listen to other North Dakotans much more than they do to robocalls or blind emails from a campaign,” said North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong. “Having a good ground game in North Dakota would be important for that.”

Armstrong was on the small panel of party leaders that met for four hours Friday, rifling through a batch of 105 candidates to come up with their list of 25 preferred candidates for national delegate. But the group held that information tight Friday evening, not even telling candidates who sought the spots who was in and who was out.

Rifling through that batch of candidates is precisely what the presidential campaigns were doing as well this week – making phone calls and working the convention Friday evening in person, to try and identify their supporters. Their focus was not just on the slate of preferred delegates, but also candidates they could submit for a convention battle Sunday.

State Rep. Scott Louser, leader of North Dakota’s state House Republican Caucus and a candidate for national delegate, said he was celebrating his wife’s birthday before the convention Friday evening at a restaurant in Fargo and spotted Fiorina there. There was no crowd around her, so he went over and asked her if she would take a photo with them because it was his wife’s birthday.

“The fact they’re here tells us we’re as important as any other state and oftentimes North Dakota doesn’t feel that way,” said Louser, who is already supporting Cruz. “So to have national candidates come to our convention in the heat of the campaign tells us we’re not flyover country, that every vote matters. The fact that they’re here, shaking hands, wanting to get to know us, makes a huge difference.”

State delegates said the Cruz campaign seemed to have the state wired better than Trump or Kasich, indicated in part by the numerous phone calls and one robopoll the campaign did earlier this week to identify supporters.

But the will of the Republican base here could well be more with Trump, something to which the state’s politicians were keenly attuned.

“In the absence of our party hosting a caucus or sponsoring a primary and going more to this closed-shop process, I engaged then in my own straw poll over the course of the month of February and into March,” Cramer said. “So in that straw poll, about 5,000 North Dakota Republicans participated and Trump carried the day at about 38% to Cruz’s 26%. And that’s pretty indicative of the state of North Dakota.”

Most other years the state’s Republican senator and congressman would attend the national convention as one of the 25 national delegates. But this year, Cramer and Sen. John Hoeven both withdrew their names from consideration, saying they wanted grassroots activists to have the chance to get a say at the national convention.

It also means that Hoeven and Cramer, who face re-election bids this year, won’t have to declare whether they’re Trump or Cruz supporters – making them perhaps the freest of agents when the other delegates face the heat at the national convention in Cleveland.