LAS VEGAS (AP) — Ted Cruz has hundreds of influential Republican donors and Jewish leaders all to himself this weekend in Las Vegas as he addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Cruz's rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump and John Kasich, declined invitations to attend — a puzzling move in particular for Trump as he tries to project himself as a party unifier who deserves the Republican nomination even if he falls short of winning enough delegates in the primaries to clinch it outright.
Trump had no clear scheduling conflict, with no public events this weekend until a Rochester, N.Y. rally Sunday afternoon.
It's a "missed opportunity" for Trump to build on a well-received recent speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said Abbie Friedman, an RJC board member who introduced Trump when he spoke to the Republican group in December. "With Cruz coming in, he'll have the entire platform to himself to win support from an incredibly powerful and important group."
The RJC is funded by the top political donor of 2012, Sheldon Adelson, and meets at the billionaire's Venetian casino resort on the Strip.
Trump declined an invitation to attend a private dinner at Adelson's home Thursday night with the Republican Jewish Coalition's board, according to people with direct knowledge of the invitation who weren't authorized to share the details about the event. Trump decided not to attend the dinner even before he canceled a West Coast trip that he'd planned for Thursday and Friday.
Trump's spokeswoman and his campaign manager did not respond to requests for comment.
The Republican front-runner does not appear to be sending surrogates to Las Vegas, either, as onetime presidential candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did last year.
"That, to me, is a real revelation into the weakness of his campaign," said Ari Fleischer, another RJC board member who has said he would back any GOP nominee in the general election. "There should be someone here on the ground. That's what good campaigns do."
In addition to speaking Saturday to more than 500 attendees, Cruz has a separate, smaller event planned with RJC members. His chief Jewish liaison, Nick Muzin, will be there throughout the conference. And pro-Cruz outside groups that can take unlimited contributions are setting up shop in the Venetian this weekend, ready to land donations.
"There's a lot of interest in hearing from Ted Cruz in light of his win in Wisconsin and the impact that has on re-shaping the race," said Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks. "It's all coming together at a crucial juncture."
Brooks said some of his organization's members no longer see Trump as the overwhelming front-runner and predict a contested convention this summer.
Among the recent converts to Cruz are Fred and Jay Zeidman of Houston. Both signed on last week as fundraisers for the Texas senator, following their work for Jeb Bush, who ended his campaign in February.
Fred Zeidman, an RJC board member, said he doesn't agree with Cruz's position about deporting the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. "But with the safety and security of Israel being our priority, no one in this whole campaign is more outspoken on this issue than Ted Cruz," he said. "And we'd be remiss if we didn't show him our support."
Charlie Spies, a prominent Republican Jewish attorney, suggested that Cruz has a clear advantage over Trump in many attendees' minds.
"The pro-Israel community believes that Ted Cruz is lock step with them on the issues that they care about involving national security," Spies said Friday in Las Vegas. "The people here will appreciate his showing up. He already has a strong base of support, and I expect that will only grow."
The group's gatherings have become can't-miss for GOP candidates in recent years. Part of the reason: Adelson, a key member, was the top political spender in the last presidential race, pouring $90 million of family money into that campaign.
Yet the gambling mogul hasn't been willing to place a bet in this year's unpredictable Republican presidential contest, sending mixed signals about his candidate preference. His newly acquired Las Vegas newspaper backed Marco Rubio, who has since dropped out, his wife has been a Cruz fan, and he himself recently said of a Trump nomination, "Why not?"
In November, Adelson wrote a pair of $2,700 checks to Cruz and Bush — a steep drop-off from the previous race.
Aside from the Thursday dinner at his house, Adelson wasn't expected to be at any of the RJC conference events. Likewise, he did not attend the RJC's December presidential forum in Washington. All the GOP candidates at the time, including Trump, spoke there.
Bykowicz reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Jersey City, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
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