Photographer: Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Wide-Open Colorado Convention Is a Republican Delegate Rodeo

  • Hopefuls get 10 seconds apiece to sell themselves to the party
  • Cruz swoops in as most haven't declared whom they'll support

For the first time in 40 years, a presidential candidate will appear at Colorado’s Republican Assembly, a sign of how arcane and obscure rules governing delegates in some states may lead the party to a contested national convention in July.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, fresh from a triumph in Wisconsin, will appeal to the faithful Saturday in Colorado Springs as he seeks to load the state’s complement of 37 delegates with his supporters. He’s already won six and has an extensive grassroots operation orchestrated by Colorado’s Tea Party network. It’s a center of strength for a candidate who has married fervent conservatism, legal acumen and a bent for organization.

Billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who has no major field operations in the state, is betting instead on grassroots momentum that’s fueled his delegate lead nationwide. His core staff, many of whom have scant experience in national politics, is being swiftly expanded to include people who can navigate byzantine delegate rules.

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While most delegates must vote as their state did on the first convention ballot, they can defect on subsequent rounds. Others, with small delegations and rules that allow free-agent delegates have become pivotal as Cruz tries to deny Trump a first-vote victory. Wyoming, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Guam and the Virgin Islands allow all or some delegates to remain unbound. And in Colorado, the competition is at its most intense.

“It gets quite wild,” said Amy Stephens, director of Colorado government affairs at the law firm Dentons US LLP in Denver. “You are going to be there a long time, so you might as well get your coffee and your granola bars and sit back.”

Straw Poll

Cruz, Trump and Ohio Governor John Kasich virtually ignored Colorado after the first Republican debate in October in liberal-leaning Boulder. But the intense contest for Colorado delegates began when the state party defied the Republican National Committee by skipping a straw poll that would have bound delegates to that winner at the national convention.

On Saturday, party members will choose delegates from a pool of about 600, two-thirds of whom have declined to say which candidate they will support. The prospective delegates will be allowed 10 seconds each to hurry across the stage at the Broadmoor World Arena and introduce themselves.

The obscure selection process kicked into high gear April 2, when two congressional districts elected three delegates each to support Cruz. Fifteen delegates will be chosen at five similar meetings this week, and 13 at the convention Saturday. Party leaders will fill the remaining three.

“In this superdecentralized system, campaigns are forced to go from delegate to delegate trying to persuade them,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens who operates the Frontloading HQ blog, which tracks the process. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

One Cruz supporter said that the byzantine process favors a grassroots effort.

“Trump supporters are out there, but their numbers are not strong,” said Regina Thomson, Cruz’s state coordinator. “County by county, we’ve been contacting people that we knew to be self-identified Cruz supporters.”

New Faces

The fervor of this year’s primary prompted scores of voters who never participated in a precinct caucus to file paperwork to be delegates. Facing unusual competition, prospective delegates are conducting their own extensive campaigns, using flyers, social media and face-to-face meetings to garner votes.

“I was amazed at the number of new faces,” said Randy Corporon, chairman of the Arapahoe Tea Party who was elected as a Cruz delegate in the sixth congressional district after releasing a video on Facebook touting his candidacy. “It inspired me to put my money where my mouth is.”

Even as Trump holds a commanding national delegate lead -- 743 to Cruz’s 517 and Kasich’s 143 -- his recent missteps have re-energized his competitors, both of whom assembled volunteer operations in Colorado last year spearheaded by party insiders.

On Saturday, more than 4,000 party faithful are expected to choose the delegates. The campaigns are working feverishly to advance the fortunes of prospective delegates who support them, promoting state legislators, university regents, local officials, business people and even a former Olympic pentathlete.

“There are well over 400 people who are undeclared -- you are going to see at least half be brand-new people to this convention, and that’s quite astounding,” Stephens said.

Textbook Campaign

Several candidates on Cruz’s slate received endorsements from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the Faith and Freedom Coalition of Colorado and the Republican National Coalition for Life.

“What set the Cruz people apart is the quality of their coordinators, and organizing very quietly and firmly,” said Joy Hoffman, chairwoman of the Arapahoe County Republican Party. “In 10 or 15 years, there should be a textbook analysis in political-science classes on the skills with which their organizational behaviors took place -- they were without a doubt exceptional.”

Still, the masses of prospective delegates “are very confused about what’s going on right now,” said Stephens, a former Colorado House Republican leader and chairwoman of Kasich’s state campaign.

Some party elders filed to run as delegates in hopes of steering the undecided toward their candidate of choice.

“At first I thought to let others do this,” said Mary Dambman, a former Republican National Committee member and legislator running unpledged, but leaning toward Kasich. “Then, I thought with all these new people, they are going to need an old experienced person such as myself to explain the ropes.”

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