Trump gets help for Pennsylvania’s inside game

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Two House Republicans from Pennsylvania are assisting Donald Trump in the battle for delegates ahead of the state’s presidential primary Tuesday, April 26.

Reps. Tom Marino and Lou Barletta are working behind the scenes in Pennsylvania to help Trump get his supporters elected as delegates, giving the Republican presidential front-runner some badly needed institutional muscle for an insiders’ game at which he’s been getting pummeled.

{mosads}Only 17 of Pennsylvania’s 71 delegates are bound to the overall winner of the state’s election, and Trump is favored to win the popular vote given his lead in polls.

The remaining 54 delegates will be elected directly by voters, however, meaning the candidates in Pennsylvania must get their supporters to elect delegates loyal to their campaigns.

And many voters will be flying blind, because the ballots won’t identify which delegates are loyal to candidates Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich.

Cruz has repeatedly routed Trump in the down-ballot contests that determine whose allies will be represented at a potentially contested Republican National Convention in July.

Barletta insists the Trump campaign has made strides and says Pennsylvania will be the turning point.

“They not only caught up; they’re ahead right now,” Barletta told reporters on Capitol Hill following a meeting with Trump’s convention manager, Paul Manafort. “I’m very comfortable that they’ve made a first-class organization in Pennsylvania for next Tuesday.”

At the same time, Marino is tempering expectations.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview. “We only have a week here, or less than a week. … It’s definitely not a slam dunk, so we’re not taking anything for granted. These things can turn on the hour.”

Together, the lawmakers say they’ve cut ribbons on a half-dozen new Trump campaign offices across the state and are in contact with the candidate’s national campaign team about strategy.

They say they’re also in touch with the county chairmen in Pennsylvania about the election process and are lobbying their House colleagues — several of whom are running to be Pennsylvania delegates — on Trump’s behalf. And they are personally speaking to the delegate candidates whom voters will choose on Tuesday.

It’s a level of institutional involvement that Trump’s campaign so far has been lacking.

“People are saying that the process is rigged. And it is rigged; it’s been that way forever,” Marino said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re just going to concede that it’s rigged and have that be it. You have to play the game by the rules, and we have the opportunity to help him do that.”

The Pennsylvania primary will illustrate whether Trump’s rapidly professionalized campaign can compete with Cruz’s long-standing organizational advantage.

“The question for these campaigns is whether to invest resources in driving up the popular vote, or in getting these delegates, who may have informally pledged their support, elected,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who is running to be a delegate. On the first ballot at the national convention in Cleveland, he said, he’ll vote for the candidate who wins his district.

Costello said he’s seen little difference between the campaigns’ ground games so far in Pennsylvania. He said he’s heard from each campaign by email and that no candidate appears to have a competitive advantage at this point.

But Cruz has run circles around Trump on this front, sweeping delegates at state conventions in Colorado and North Dakota and even getting his backers seats at the convention in states such as Georgia and South Carolina, where Trump won easily.

Most of the delegates from states that held primaries will be bound to Trump on the first ballot. But if the nomination process goes to a second ballot, many would be able to switch their support to another candidate, like Cruz.

That has many political watchers viewing Cruz as the favorite to emerge as the presidential nominee at a contested convention. But first Cruz would have to block Trump from hitting the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright.

Trump has railed against the process, calling it rigged and accusing party insiders of seeking to steal the nomination from him.

Still, Trump has shown a willingness to play the game in recent weeks. The GOP front-runner has brought on a raft of veteran campaign operatives to help him steer through the labyrinth of state and national convention rules.

On Tuesday in Pennsylvania he’ll face rivals fighting foremost for the unbound delegates.

 In a memo released Wednesday, Kasich strategist John Weaver said the campaign in Pennsylvania is “focused on supporting delegate candidates who will work at the convention to nominate the most electable candidate in the fall.”

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a Kasich surrogate, told The Hill a contested convention may hinge on who does a better job of getting supporters elected in the Keystone State.

“We’re probably the largest group of unbound delegates at this point, the largest bloc,” he said. “So Pennsylvania could play an enormous role if Donald Trump doesn’t secure 1,237 into Cleveland.”

In Pennsylvania, there are 162 candidates for delegate on the ballot. Voters will send 54 of those to the national convention, but there’s little that the individual candidates can do to campaign for themselves.

The favorites to win on election day are the state and federal lawmakers or party leaders, some of whom have been endorsed by the local Republican Party groups.

The bulk of these party leaders are keeping quiet about whom they support, either vowing to go to the convention uncommitted or, like Costello, saying they’ll support whoever wins their district, at least on the first ballot.

Some Trump supporters believe these party leaders harbor inherent biases against their candidate and fear they have no intention of ever backing him.

Philadelphia lawyer Wayne Buckwalter, a candidate for delegate who has pledged to support Trump, said the three county-approved candidates in his district can’t be trusted.

“They’re in the tank for Kasich, or Cruz, or someone not named Trump,” Buckwalter said. “They’re waiting to be told by party leaders who to vote for.”

It’s up to Trump’s campaign to get a sense from these candidates if they might be sympathetic to the front-runner, and, if so, to get them elected.

So far, the reviews from Trump supporters on the ground in Pennsylvania have been mixed.

Marc Scaringi, a Harrisburg lawyer, said the Trump delegate operation only kicked into high gear over the last week.

“We saw what happened in Colorado,” Scaringi said. “But the Trump campaign out here has been organic. We have lots of volunteers who have been organizing for some time, and now it looks like the Trump campaign has officially landed.”

Cody Knotts, a Pennsylvania filmmaker who was recruited by the Trump campaign to run for a delegate slot back in January, said one local volunteer informed the Trump campaign last week that Cruz’s allies would be handing out slate cards of preferred delegates near polling outlets on Tuesday.

Knotts said the Trump campaign responded this week by saying it would do the same.

“They’re just reacting to what the Cruz folks are doing, but it’s better than nothing,” he said. “Otherwise, my plan was to just hand out business cards outside my polling station.”

Cristina Marcos and Scott Wong contributed.

Tags Donald Trump Lou Barletta Ted Cruz

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