LA PORTE, Ind. — Ted Cruz is barnstorming Indiana like his campaign depends on it — and it very well may.
Struggling mightily to overtake frontrunner Donald Trump, Cruz is pulling out all the stops ahead of the primary Tuesday in the Hoosier State — a likely make-or-break moment if the Texas senator means to force a contested convention against the billionaire. A decisive victory here by Trump, as predicted by a number of polls, could significantly ease his path to winning the 1,237 delegates he needs before Republicans gather to choose their nominee in Cleveland, effectively blotting out Cruz's only hope for survival.
“If Cruz wins Indiana, Cruz wins the nomination," radio host Glenn Beck, a Cruz supporter, told a reporter before a rally Sunday afternoon in Lafayette. "If Indiana comes through, he wins. If Indiana doesn’t, I think it’s over with. It could be."
Returning to Indiana on Sunday after a daylong detour to California, Cruz urged supporters to hold firm against a variety of forces he said are desperate for Trump to win.
"The mainstream media wants this race to be over. The New York power brokers want this race to be over. The Washington lobbyists want this race to be over," Cruz said at an afternoon rally in Lafayette before calling to mind the former U.S. House speaker who recently called him "Lucifer in the flesh." "John Boehner wants this race to be over. They all make their decision, and they now expect the people of Indiana to fall in line."
"In 51 hours, it will be over," Cruz later added, bringing back a countdown that characterized his final push ahead of a crucial contest in another Midwestern state: the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. Five hours later, at a rally in La Porte, Cruz called the ensuing 46 hours a "blink of time in which the direction of this country will be decided."
If Cruz loses here Tuesday, it won't be for a lack of last-ditch bids to salvage his candidacy. After much resistance, Cruz's campaign struck a deal with rival John Kasich, agreeing to back off New Mexico and Oregon as long as the Ohio governor stayed out of Indiana. Then Cruz named rival-turned-supporter Carly Fiorina as his running mate, an unusual move that underscored just how much the Cruz campaign needed to change the dynamic in Indiana. And on Friday, Cruz secured the support of Gov. Mike Pence, though Pence's tepid backing left much to be desired by Cruz supporters.
Whatever concerns Cruz's campaign privately holds about the situation in Indiana were validated by an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday morning that found Trump leading Cruz by 15 points in the state. Even worse, 58 percent of respondents registered their disapproval of Cruz's deal with Kasich, with only 22 percent calling it a major factor in deciding their vote.
Cruz's campaign is pushing forward, dispatching him and seven surrogates — including Pence — on 10 stops across the state Monday, an unprecedented schedule of campaigning that nonetheless does not come close to its busiest day ahead of the Iowa caucuses. All the while, the campaign and its allies are pouring millions of dollars into digital, radio and TV advertising throughout Indiana, largely attack ads against Trump.
More broadly, Cruz is contending with a closing window to deny Trump the delegates he needs to clinch the nomination before the convention. Cruz claims no candidate is going to reach the threshold of 1,237 before Cleveland, a theory that would be severely undercut if Trump collects most of the 57 delegates up for grabs Tuesday in Indiana.
Cruz's allies are keenly aware of the possibility. In an interview last week, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who led Cruz's efforts in the Lone Star State, acknowledged that Trump could clinch the nomination before the convention, saying there is "no question that Donald Trump is within shot of 1,237."
Despite the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Cruz's supporters still see a haze of uncertainty in Indiana, where reliable polling has been scarce and the campaign's ground game has been firing on all cylinders. In addition to operating a Camp Cruz volunteer headquarters in Indianapolis for weeks, the campaign has recruited 153 county chairs across all 92 counties.
"It’s hard to gauge," state Sen. Konni Burton, an early Cruz supporter, said of Indiana. "There’s so much that so many of us do not know. You can't necessarily depend on the polling. I think right now, the feeling is that nobody really knows how much support is for any of the candidates. Everybody just kind of has their heads down and is working hard — at least from the Cruz camp — to get Cruz to win."
Cruz was upbeat during a stop Sunday afternoon at an aptly named restaurant in Winimac: Cruizers. The Texas senator entertained a group of teens with his well-known impressions of "Princess Bride" characters, joked with a family about interrogating his daughters' prospective suitors in the Oval Office and left his mark with a hand-written message under the restaurant's menu board ("Always Stand For Liberty!").
Yet the fate of Cruz's campaign after Tuesday was on the mind of at least one supporter who came to see him at Cruizers.
“I would say it depends on how many delegates go his way," said Christi Hoffa, Pulaski County clerk and an officer with the county GOP. "I don’t want to see anybody give up. I really hate that. You hate to see somebody back out, but if it’s not mathematically possible for him to pull it out, then, yeah, I think it would be a good time to bow out."
Cruz's campaign is planning 10 events across Indiana on Monday, stretching from near the state's northern border with Michigan (Osceola) down to the southern Indiana college town of Bloomington. Cruz is scheduled to attend five of the stops — two of them with Pence — while the others are being headlined by a cast of surrogates that includes Fiorina.