INDIANAPOLIS — Anxious for the presidential race to move beyond the northeast, Ted Cruz is laying the groundwork for a vigorous effort ahead of the May 3 primary in Indiana that could determine just how close Donald Trump gets to securing the Republican nomination.
Not much is known about the state of play in the Hoosier State — there has been virtually no public polling on the Republican race — but Cruz is working to make it his next battleground. For the junior senator from Texas, it's a welcome distraction from the northeast, where he was crushed in the New York primary Tuesday and is bracing for more disappointment next Tuesday.
"The state of Indiana is going to play a pivotal role in this election," Cruz said here Thursday night at a state GOP dinner where he was politely — but not overwhelmingly — received. "The entire country, her eyes are on the state of Indiana, the men and women in this room."
Promising a spirited campaign throughout the state, Cruz added that he and his wife plan "to spend a lot of time here in Indiana, working to earn your vote, barnstorming the state, holding town halls, holding rallies, asking for your support, and Indiana's voice, Indiana's megaphone to the country will decide which path this party goes down, which path this country goes down."
It was far from the first time Cruz has talked sweepingly of a state's outsized impact on the nominating process — and it probably will not be the last. But a decisive victory in Indiana's primary on May 3, when 57 delegates are up for grabs, could give Cruz a key boost in what is now his sole mission: denying frontrunner Donald Trump the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination before the GOP national convention.
Long before Cruz landed here Thursday, his campaign was moving to lay claim to the state. It has quietly opened offices and recruited volunteers for another so-called "Camp Cruz" headquarters, this one located at a Christian camp in Indianapolis. Scheduled to open Friday, the camp is situated so that volunteers can reach five of Indiana's nine congressional districts, which will each award three delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
Before the May primary, however, Cruz must endure Tuesday, when 172 delegates are up for grabs in five nominating contests, all in the northeast. Of the five, Cruz has indicated he is focusing on primaries in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where he held a rally Thursday morning before flying to Indiana. In the three others — Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island — Cruz's campaign has done little publicly to suggest it is seriously competing.
Anti-Trump forces are already looking beyond Tuesday and beginning to rally around Cruz in the Hoosier State, with the Club for Growth announcing Thursday that it plans to spend roughly $1.5 million on TV advertising there. One of the spots the group intends to start running Friday is similar to an ad it aired in Wisconsin that declared Cruz, not Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the only candidate who can stop Trump.
"Indiana is facing a unique moment in history: the opportunity to stop Donald Trump," Dave McIntosh, Club for Growth president and a former Indiana congressman, said in a statement. "There is now no state more important than Indiana for electing Cruz and keeping Trump from reaching 1,237."
Cruz began the swing through Indiana on Thursday with a stop at a deli in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium, where he chowed down a pastrami sandwich — no cheese, a self-professed indulgence of his — and mixed it up with a supporter of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders who nonetheless found common cause.
"We may disagree, but thanks for fighting Trump!" the Sanders supporter, 22-year-old Brandon Dothager of Highland, yelled as Cruz left the deli. The senator paused on his way to his SUV to respond, pointing out he and Dothager do have one thing in common: They both would not prefer to see Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the White House.
After visiting the deli, Cruz privately met with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at his residence, a rendezvous that lasted more than 30 minutes while several reporters looked on from underneath a rain-drenched tent outside. Pence's office said Cruz had requested the meeting and that the governor is open to meeting with all three GOP candidates. Pence huddled Wednesday with Trump, who was visiting Indianapolis for a rally.
At the dinner, Cruz heaped praise on Pence, pausing the jobs section of his speech to concede he is not telling Hoosier Republicans anything they do not already know. He also sang the praises of the state's commitment to school choice under Pence, saying "every one of those students has been touched by a program that gives them hope."
"The leaders y'all have seen in Indiana under Gov. Mike Pence have been incredibly powerful, but imagine how much better it would be if you weren't dealing with an 800-pound weight from Washington, D.C., on the backs of your schools and businesses," Cruz said.
Cruz stocked the speech with appeals to Indiana voters, promising to protect jobs associated with the coal industry that makes up 84 percent of the state's power. On a lighter note, Cruz twice invoked the college basketball movie "Hoosiers," reconstructing scenes to lament the burden of the federal government.
Cruz was scheduled to return to Pennsylvania on Friday, but his wife Heidi was set to make four stops across Indiana to meet with supporters and attend grand openings of offices in Evansville, Jeffersonville, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. She was already in the Hoosier State on Thursday afternoon, holding a meet and greet in Martinsville.