By Caitlin Huey-Burns – – – – –
The Arizona and Utah primaries will play a pivotal role in the GOP presidential race – and not just because of the 98 delegates at stake. It’s because voters won’t weigh in again for another two weeks, a veritable lifetime in political cycles that will challenge the candidates to sustain their momentum – or try to capture it.
Polling shows Donald Trump leading the Grand Canyon State’s primary, where the victor on Tuesday will claim all of the 58 delegates. The businessman’s immigration proposals have boosted him there, along with support from former Gov. Jan Brewer and Sherriff Joe Arpaio, both of whom are well known for their strict and controversial views on the issue.
Ted Cruz is also competing in Arizona, and an upset would be a significant victory for those hoping to thwart Trump’s path to the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination and create an open convention. But such an outcome appears unlikely, despite Cruz’s best efforts. Early voting began in the state a month ago, when Marco Rubio and others were still in the race.
“If Cruz was going to mount an upset victory, he would have needed some of those Rubio voters,” says Arizona Republican strategist Steve Voeller.
During a stop at a church in Peoria, Ariz., over the weekend, the Texas senator acknowledged that handicap, but urged voters to help reverse it by turning out in large numbers on Tuesday.
Cruz visited the southern border with Mexico on Friday, aiming to compete with Trump on the issue of immigration. Cruz is running an ad in the state that features a man whose son was killed by an immigrant in the country illegally.
Meanwhile, Cruz appears poised to win the caucuses in Utah, where his message figures to resonate with the heavily Mormon voting base there. The question heading into Tuesday, however, is not whether he wins the state, but by how much. Whoever reaches 50 percent of the support will win all of the 40 delegates available.
Trump hopes to prevent Cruz from meeting that threshold, even if he isn’t competing heavily in the state. Unlike in Arizona, Trump’s call to ban Muslims and his support for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants is potentiallydamaging to him among the Utah electorate.
While campaigning in Salt Lake City over the weekend, Trump even questioned the faith of Mitt Romney, a respected figure in the Mormon community and in Utah, where he declares residency and where he served as the lauded chief executive of the Olympic Games in 2002. The 2012 GOP presidential nominee is among the most vocal in the movement to prevent Trump from getting the nomination. After professing his love for Mormons, Trump then shifted to Romney: “Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?”
For his part, the former standard-bearer made news last week by announcing he would vote for Cruz in the Utah primary after having campaigned for John Kasich in Ohio. “I like Governor John Kasich. I have campaigned with him. He has a solid record as governor. I would have voted for him in Ohio. But a vote for Governor Kasich in future contests makes it extremely likely that Trumpism would prevail,” Romney wrote in a Facebook post. “I will vote for Senator Cruz and I encourage others to do so as well, so that we can have an open convention and nominate a Republican.”
Romney also recorded robo-calls for Cruz in both states holding elections Tuesday, calling on Republicans to unite behind him. Utah Sen. Mike Lee has also endorsed Cruz and is campaigning for him around the state. He is also featured in an ad running there.
Texas’ freshman lawmaker believes Kasich is getting in his way, especially in Utah, where he could block Cruz from getting more than 50 percent of the support. The Ohio governor campaigned in the state over the weekend and is running an ad there. During campaign stops, Cruz has reiterated his belief that a vote for Kasich is tantamount to a vote for Trump.
For his part, Kasich isn’t willing to play along with his rival and is instead aiming to peel away as many delegates as he can to get in hopes of competing at an open convention in his home state this July. “I’m going to compete across the country and tell people who I am and let the chips fall where they may,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And let me also tell you, no one – no one — is going to that convention with enough delegates.”
Even if Trump were to win all the Tuesday’s delegates, he would still need over 500 more to clinch the nomination. Those aiming to prevent him from doing so are focusing on the April 5 primary in Wisconsin. Following that, there will be another two-week lull until New York’s primary on April 19. And, with no more GOP debates scheduled, candidates will be looking for other ways to get their message to voters.