The fight for unbound delegates between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is about to get white hot as the U.S. senator from Texas is confirmed to be the keynote speaker at the North Dakota delegate convention on April 2.
North Dakota is one of three states that have the most unbound delegates being voted on in the next several weeks. Unbound delegates are not tethered to any particular candidate and are free to vote their preference. They will become increasingly key if Trump can not win the majority of delegates required for the Republican nomination.
North Dakota has 28 delegates that are up for grabs. This contest is followed by Colorado on April 9 for the election of its 37 unbound delegates and on April 16 in Wyoming for 29 unbound delegates. American Samoa and Guam had contests for their unbound delegates earlier in March. Each territory will have nine delegates representing them at the GOP's July convention.
This is not the first delegate contest where Cruz will be personally meeting with delegates in an effort to convince them to promise to vote for him at the convention. The Cruz campaign confirmed publicly the senator will also be attending the Colorado assembly.
The speaking slots were picked by the campaigns, Roz Leighton, executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party told CNBC. Even though Trump's campaign called the state office first, they chose to have Ben Carson speak on Sunday morning before the vote. Carson has endorsed Trump. The Cruz campaign requested to have the senator deliver the Saturday keynote which is before the delegate nominations. CNBC has also learned that John Kasich's campaign called this week, just days before the convention, to see if a surrogate can participate.
What makes the North Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming delegate elections so important to the candidates is these delegates are unbound in the first vote and can vote for any candidate they want. In a contested convention, these delegates could sway the nomination in either Cruz or Trump's favor. In the race for 1,237, Trump is in the lead with 749 delegates, followed by Cruz with 485 and Kasich with 143, according to NBC News.
Those on the ground in North Dakota tell CNBC that Cruz is heavily on the hunt to get as many delegates as possible. "I have heard Cruz is actively recruiting delegates and identifying delegates who want to go to the convention," said Leighton.
Gary Emineth, former chairman of the Republican committee of North Dakota and seeking to be elected as an unbound delegate for the second time, is one of the delegates being heavily targeted by the Cruz campaign with emails and phone calls. "Cruz has the best ground game in the state. His team is very aggressive identifying the past delegates. Congratulating us on our service with in-person meet and greets, emails and phone calls. Normally delegates are incumbents so they know who wants to be on that ballot. I have not heard from Trump."
Leighton tells CNBC the state Republican Party has received more delegate applications this year compared to the 2012 convention. "It definitely has been a game changer with the possibility of a brokered convention."
Around 100 North Dakotans have applied and will be reviewed by the delegate conference selection committee. The applicants are then pared down to a slate of 28 convention delegates and 28 alternates where 2,000 North Dakota state convention delegates then vote.
The delegation vote committee of North Dakota is made up of 10 members plus the state party chairman. Curly Haugland, who is co-chair of the delegate vote committee, stressed to CNBC that even if a member of the delegate vote committee is supporting a candidate, it will not sway the voting process of an applicant.
"The delegates selected are based on a mathematical process that grades the performance of the delegates' work in the party, not whom the delegate supports," said Haugland. "We rate the applicants on a basis of five criteria. For example: If they ever ran or held an office? Were they a delegate to a previous convention? It's a 100 point score. In the end it's a mathematical calculation. Not supporting so and so. You could be supporting the pope but if you have a low number, you're not getting on the slate to be voted on. We reward our party elders."
Leighton agreed with Haugland: "If we are sending our delegates unbound we should not have them put down who they support. This is a blind vote. We do not ask who they are supporting."
Cruz is also putting a personal touch on the ground campaign by having his father, Rafael, meeting with delegates alongside North Dakota state Rep. Bette Grande. It's that personal touch insiders say could give Cruz an advantage over the GOP front-runner, "Trump is nowhere to be found here," said delegate Emineth. "Trump thinks he can do stump speeches and rely on the polls to get the delegate vote. That doesn't work with delegates. He needs a ground game and doesn't have one."
The Trump and Cruz campaigns did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.