By Emily Stephenson and Ginger Gibson
(Reuters) - U.S. Senator Ted Cruz is poised to notch another small but important victory in his battle with billionaire Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination at a hotel convention center in the ranching city of Casper, Wyoming, this weekend.
A committee of Wyoming Republicans is likely to hand Cruz most of the state's 14 remaining delegates to the party's national convention in July, political operatives, including Trump supporters in the state, told Reuters. That may not seem like a big number, but both men are engaged in a fierce struggle to win as many as possible of the party insiders who could decide the presidential nominee at a contested convention.
Cruz's strength in Wyoming underscores the contrast between the way the rivals handle this nuance of American politics: where Cruz focuses on organizing at a minute level to court delegates in preparation for a convention fight, Trump has run a national campaign focused on winning the popular vote in early nominating contests and has paid little attention to the more arcane elements of U.S. presidential politics.
Cruz's effort has included personal visits to far-flung areas, regular conference calls among his state supporters, and hospitality suites to court backers within state parties, while Trump has assailed the delegate system as "rigged" and only recently reorganized his campaign to focus on them.
"I think Cruz has done a good job with how they targeted states," said Jason Osborne, a Republican strategist who has advised Trump, and who previously worked on former candidate Ben Carson's campaign. “An operation like Trump’s was built for something completely different."
Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The United States has a unique system for picking presidential nominees. A combination of nominating polls – usually in the form of state primaries, caucuses, and party conventions – are used to apportion delegates to candidates.
In the Republican race, a candidate needs to win a majority of the total 2,472 delegates to get the nomination. While Trump has won 21 state nominating contests so far to Cruz's nine, the billionaire leads the Texas senator by only 208 delegates (743-545).
To avoid a convention fight, Trump needs 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination. That means he has to win nearly 60 percent of the remaining delegates before July.
KEEP THE PROMISE
Cruz's effort in Wyoming, America's least populous state, is a window into his broader delegate strategy and helps explain how he has become a formidable candidate despite his relatively underdog performance in the primaries so far.
The effort began in 2015, while most other candidates were focused on the early races in Iowa or New Hampshire. Ed Buchanan, a trial attorney in Cheyenne, got a call from Heidi Cruz, the candidate's wife, in October asking if he would become the state chairman for Cruz's presidential campaign.
Buchanan, a former speaker of the State House, agreed to the role, which has taken him to every corner of the state trying to court support and build a slate of delegates.
Some states allow the voters to select the delegates who will attend the Republican convention on their behalf, but in most, like Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota, voters have no say in who goes to Cleveland.
If Trump doesn't have the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright, many delegates will become free at the July convention to pick a candidate based on their personal preference, not the choice of the voters in their state.
That is why campaigns want their supporters among the delegates and that is where Buchanan comes in.
He is responsible for assembling a list of the Cruz campaign's preferred delegates, which he will present to the Casper conference. Each would-be Cruz delegate has promised not to switch allegiances if the voting at the Cleveland convention goes beyond one ballot.
Buchanan expects them to stick to their word. If they don't, it will not go unnoticed, he said.
"It's a small state. The people who are in political circles know each other and that would not be forgotten," he said.
CAMPAIGN BUTTONS AND FREE FOOD
In Wyoming, Cruz won nine of the 12 delegates who were selected at county-level meetings in March. Nearly 1,000 of the state's most active party members will decide in Casper this weekend the remaining 14 delegates to be voted on.
Cruz will speak on Saturday and his supporters have organized a hospitality room, where they will have freebies like campaign buttons and food.
Trump has not campaigned in the state and will spend the weekend in New York, which holds a major primary next week. He will send former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in his stead.
"Cruz was here, and that makes a difference to a small state," former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming said in an interview.
Trump has been slow to adapt his campaign to the delegate fight and has instead attacked the process.
"I know the rules very well, but I know it’s stacked against me by the establishment," Trump said on CNN on Tuesday.
It is likely now too late to combat Cruz's operation in Wyoming.
Dick Shanor, who will attend the national convention to support Cruz, said supporters organized to get like-minded voters to show up at the county elections last month, helping the senator to score those early delegate wins.
Jack Volsey, a Trump supporter from Rock Springs, Wyoming, had a different experience. He said he sent a message to a pro-Trump Facebook group in the state asking how he could participate in his county convention, but he never heard back. He was eventually selected as an alternate delegate to this weekend's gathering, but he has decided not to go.
"I’m not going to go there to sit on the sidelines when I’m sure it’s a done deal already."
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Ross Colvin)