SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Donald Trump faces an uphill battle in Utah’s caucuses Tuesday, but he could still walk away with delegates if sharp divisions within the party prevent anyone from winning a majority.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is likely to do well in Utah, a conservative state that prizes civility and religiosity. Cruz has been helped by the support of Mitt Romney, the GOP’s last presidential nominee who holds clout among the state’s predominantly Mormon voters. On Monday the Texas senator also picked up the endorsement of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
But Ohio Gov. John Kasich is fighting back in Utah, hoping his more pragmatic approach and longtime governing experience will net him delegates there. He has invested heavily in Utah in recent days, airing $215,000 in ads — the fifth highest amount he’s spent in any state so far. In addition, one Kasich campaign web ad that falsely implies Romney backed him, rather than Cruz in Utah.
According to Utah state regulations, if no candidate wins more than half of the caucus votes, each of the three candidates will be awarded delegates proportionally. The candidate who can win Utah by more than 50 percent will walk away with all 40 delegates.
Trump could significantly benefit from those rules if Cruz doesn’t win the majority, since it would ultimately bump up his lead. The former reality television star goes into Tuesday’s contests as the national front-runner with 680 delegates in hand. Cruz has 424 and Kasich has 143.
Ultimately, both Cruz and Kasich increasingly share a mutual goal — both want to stop Trump from gaining the required 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination, ultimately forcing a contested convention to take place in July.
Kasich made a series of campaign stops in the state on Friday and Saturday, drawing rebuke from Cruz.
“Donald Trump wants people to vote for Kasich because it divides his opposition,” Cruz told reporters during a trip to the Arizona border Friday.
On Monday, Utah Republicans received a pre-recorded call from Romney urging them to back Cruz, not Kasich. “At this point,” Romney said on the call, “a vote for John Kasich is a vote for Donald Trump.”
The Kasich campaign says it’s logical to compete in Utah. “It would be malpractice to cede delegates to somebody who you don’t think is going to be the nominee and who you don’t think can win the general election,” spokesman Chris Schrimpf said.
The split among Utah voters and its Republican establishment mirrors the widening divide among Republicans nationwide. A total of all the votes cast thus far reveals that a majority have opted for someone other than Trump. But with no single standard-bearer in the running, the billionaire real estate developer has managed to amass a majority of delegates.
“I don’t know if there are huge disagreements on policy but there are temperamental differences at play,” said Paul Mero, former head of a conservative think tank in Utah. “Kasich just taps into a fundamental Utah establishment seriousness.”
Kasich has netted the backing of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and onetime Sen. Bob Bennett — who was ousted by the tea party movement in 2010 and replaced by Sen. Mike Lee, who is now backing Cruz. The Texas senator, an unapologetic conservative firebrand, often lashes out against Republican establishment figures, many of whom traditionally thrive in Utah. But leaders like Romney and Herbert have consolidated around Cruz because he is seen as the only one who can catch up to Trump‘s delegate lead.
Asked if he would vote for Trump if he gets the nomination, Herbert said, “Let’s hope that doesn’t have to be my decision.”
Dave Hansen, a Republican operative in Utah, is confident that the state’s highly-engaged voters will figure out that Cruz has the better chance to get to 50 percent and block Trump.
“They are the kind of people who record CSPAN for viewing later,” Hansen said.
Written by BRADY MCCOMBS, Associated Press, NICHOLAS RICCARDI, Associated Press; Riccardi reported from Denver, Colorado. Jule Bykowicz in the District of Columbia, Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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