Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had the stage to himself Thursday at the Indiana Republican Party’s spring dinner in Indianapolis, promising to campaign hard for a state that his supporters see as key to slowing front-runner Donald Trump’s bid for the party’s presidential nomination.
Polls show Trump poised to do well in Pennsylvania and the other four northeastern states that vote on Tuesday, helping him build on the dominating win in his home state of New York on April 19.
The race then moves to Indiana, which holds it primary on May 3. It’s where Cruz and groups opposing Trump say they plan to make a stand to keep as many of the Hoosier State’s 57 delegates away from Trump and force a contested party convention in July.
“The state of Indiana is going to play a pivotal role in this election,” Cruz said during the dinner, where all the presidential candidates were invited to speak, but only he attended. “Indiana’s voice, Indiana’s megaphone to the country, will decide which path this party goes down, which path this country goes down.”
Cruz finished a distant third in the New York primary and failed to win any delegates, leaving only Trump with a mathematical chance of securing the 1,237 of delegates needed for the nomination before the national convention in Cleveland. Both Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are now trying to keep Trump under that number so they can seek the nomination through a floor fight at the July convention.
In his speech, Cruz said that only he and Trump have a viable path to the nomination. He and groups opposed to Trump are trying to replicate their success in Wisconsin’s primary, held April 5, with a win in Indiana, a conservative state where Republicans dominate government and only two Democrats have won presidential races since 1936.
There have been no public polls in Indiana, but Politico on Thursday reported the results of two private surveys showing Trump and Cruz essentially tied and another with Trump slightly ahead.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence, a Republican, met privately with Trump on Wednesday, Cruz on Thursday and plans to meet with Kasich next week when he visits the state. He said he expects a competitive race and hasn’t ruled out an endorsement.
“I’m just absolutely committed to supporting the Republican nominee for president,” Pence said in an interview before the dinner. “I need a partner in the White House.”
While the lack of public polling makes it difficult to know where the Republican candidates stand, a case can be made that all three will have support, said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Trump, who held a rally in Indianapolis on Wednesday, blasted announcements in February by Carrier Corp. and United Technologies Electronic Controls Inc. to move production from Indiana to Mexico with the loss of hundreds of jobs. That will resonate with manufacturing workers and voters without a college degree who have backed Trump in other states, Downs said.
Indiana is a fiscally and socially conservative state with high church attendance, and Cruz has shown he’s the best candidate to attract religious and social conservatives, Downs said.
Kasich is known from neighboring Ohio, where Indiana activists have gone to work on presidential elections in the past, Downs said. The governor also staged a strong delegate-selection effort that his campaign said netted a majority who are committed publicly or privately to back him.
Indiana has already selected its 57 delegates who will be bound to the May 3 winner statewide or in their congressional district on the first ballot in Cleveland. They are free to choose anyone after that.
“Without polling data, you can make an argument really for any one of the three,” Downs said. “The toughest argument is probably Kasich. Other than being next-door neighbor, there’s really not a whole lot to say he will do well here.”
Club for Growth Action, a political arm of the Club for Growth, said on Thursday it will begin broadcasting an ad statewide on Friday as part of an a $1.5 million buy to promote a vote for Cruz as a way to beat Trump.
“Indiana is facing a unique moment in history: the opportunity to stop Donald Trump,” Club for Growth Action President David McIntosh said in a statement. “There is now no state more important than Indiana for electing Cruz and keeping Trump from reaching 1,237.”
Edward Adams of Indianapolis, a 53-year-old information technology consultant, said he’ll be one of those voters casting a ballot for Cruz as a way to block Trump.
“It would be a complete disaster for the Republican Party,” Adams said of a Trump nomination. “It’s everything that I have fought against as a Republican all my life.”
Still, the effort to stop Trump in Wisconsin by getting voters to coalesce behind Cruz succeeded with the help of a network including conservative talk radio that isn’t present in Indiana, Downs said.
Trump has clearly tapped into voter anger and dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, and it’s not clear how effective a strategic effort to block him in Indiana will be, said former Indiana Republican Party Chairman Mike McDaniel, who is backing Kasich.
“That generally is not the way it works here,” he said.