BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Donald Trump keeps hammering away at Republican insiders even as campaign aides are gingerly courting those same officials.
"You know, right now we're fighting the party because it's a rigged system, ok? It's a rigged system," he told a boisterous crowd in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Saturday.
It may seem counterproductive, but Trump's foot-stomping has served as a rallying cry to boost turnout and reinforce his appeal to voters who feel disenfranchised. The "rigged" system argument is a convenient scapegoat, shifting the blame for any future potential losses and lost delegates away from a campaign that has been outmaneuvered.
Trump has won more states than his rivals, yet his team has been badly outplayed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in ensuring that supportive delegates make it to the GOP convention in July in Cleveland.
Pennsylvania, one of five states voting Tuesday, has an especially confusing delegate system.
The primary winner will emerge with 17 delegates. But 54 delegates can vote for whomever they want. The ballot will feature 162 potential delegates, but it will offer no information about whom they support. That means voters who haven't consulted with the campaigns about their rosters will be in the dark.
"That's why we have to win big," Trump told supporters Friday at a rally in Harrington, Delaware. "That's why on Tuesday, everyone has to go out and vote. We have to win big because the system is rigged."
Trump's argument would only grow stronger if he were to win the majority of votes in Pennsylvania — opinion surveys show him with a significant lead — yet emerge with fewer delegates than Cruz.
Trump has been relentless in his criticism of the delegate system, slamming party "bosses" and calling out the Republican National Committee and its chairman, Reince Priebus.
On Friday, Trump compared himself to a prize fighter competing in rival territory.
"The fighters have a great expression. When you have a champ that goes into a big territory but it's unfriendly; it's home of the other fighter. But the good ones go, 'No, no, I'm not worried,'" he said. "'Because if I knock him out there's nothing the judges can do. Right? What we have to do is knock them out with the volume of our votes."
Earlier in the week, at a Florida resort where GOP officials gathered to discuss the presidential nominating process, Trump campaign aide Paul Manafort brushed off the idea that Trump's rhetoric was making it more difficult to build bridges with party leaders.
"What he's slamming is the system. He's saying the system is rigged. And the system is rigged. It's rigged in all 50 states where they have different rules and that don't take into account modern presidential campaigns," Manafort said.
Manafort added that Trump wanted to work with Priebus to change the system for the next election. "That's where things are getting confused," he said. "He's saying we've got to change rules so the next time, when people vote, their vote counts."
Nonetheless, frustration with Trump's attacks on the RNC and the integrity of the nomination process were widespread at the party meeting in Hollywood, Florida, even as Trump's team was trying to make amends.
In a private meeting Thursday with GOP officials, Manafort tried to assure them that Trump was on their side and prepared to fundraise for the party. He stressed that the candidate had had some "very good" conversations with Priebus and said the campaign hoped to work closely with state leaders to build its general election campaign.
In Delaware, Trump's supporters said the billionaire is right to be angry at the delegate process.
"It's not democratic," said Paul Eugstenberg, 72, a retired pilot from Dover. "This should be decided by the voters. It should not be decided at the convention. They have to fix this. This is not how this should work."
Some suggested that if Trump were leading the delegate race going into the convention only to have someone else nominated, it would make them consider staying home in November instead of voting for the Republican nominee.
"If this is taken from Mr. Trump, it would destroy the Republican Party," said Debbie Patty, a retired teacher from Greenwood. "People would think their vote doesn't count and that the party doesn't care about them."
"I would never vote for a Democrat, but I'm not sure I could vote for a Republican in that scenario, either," Patty said. "That means not voting at all, and I hate that idea. But it might be what I have to do."
Lemire reported from Harrington, Delaware. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Hollywood, Florida, contributed to this report.