COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and others try to stem Donald Trump’s delegate lead , Colorado’s 34 delegates to the Republican National Convention suddenly matter.
Colorado’s Super Tuesday caucus was virtually ignored because Colorado Republicans decided not to have a straw poll. But on Saturday, Cruz will speak at the state party assembly in Colorado Springs.
“I don’t know the last time there was a presidential candidate at the state assembly,” Colorado GOP Chairman Steve House said. “Usually you have a presumptive nominee by the time we have our state assembly."
Cruz won nine delegates on Friday with in congressional district assemblies in Colorado Springs with three more to be elected later in the day. He won all six of the delegates in two district assemblies last Saturday and another three in an assembly on Thursday.
Colorado Republicans select their delegates to the Republican National Convention by congressional district -- three delegates for each of the state's seven districts.
By the time Cruz addresses Saturday’s assembly, only the 13 state-level delegates will be up for grabs. Nearly 60 percent of the 606 people running for those 13 slots aren’t pledged to a specific candidate, according to numbers released by the state party. About 30 percent support Cruz, while 7 percent are for Trump.
“I don’t recognize hardly any of the names that are lined up with Donald Trump,” said Ryan Call, a former party chairman involved in politics for 18 years who is running as an unpledged delegate. “Kudos to Ted Cruz for being able to secure some very high-profile supporters."
Among those Cruz backers are U.S. Rep. Ken Buck and his wife, state Rep. Perry Buck, along with current Secretary of State Wayne Williams, and former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who led a slate of three Cruz delegates elected at the 1st Congressional District assembly on Saturday.
In 2012, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won the caucuses, but by the time of the state assembly was out of the race and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the presumptive nominee. Call said more than 800 people threw their hats in the ring to attend the national convention.
“We ended up sending a divided delegation,” Call said. “Only about half the delegates were for Mitt Romney. About half were holdouts for Ron Paul."
This year, Call said, “The presidential campaigns are going to be very aggressive at trying to get a slate of their supporters."
House said it’s difficult to determine whether pledging to a delegate or remaining uncommitted is the better strategy for those hoping to get to the convention in Cleveland.
“My sense is, based on the work going on on the ground, an unpledged delegate who is well-known shouldn’t have a problem,” he said. But, he added, “There’s going to be a lot of movement toward delegates who bind themselves. I could be wrong, because it’s never really been like this before."
Call, who originally backed former Gov. Jeb Bush, said unpledged delegates at the convention will have the flexibility “to deny Donald Trump the nomination outright or potentially to put into play the names of other consensus candidates as an alternative."
Gabriel Schwartz, a Denver lawyer who failed in his effort to become a delegate at the 1st District assembly, said he suspected many of the unpledged delegates are secretly supporting Cruz. After supporting Sen. John McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, Schwartz is now supporting Trump.
“I was a Bush man until Donald Trump got in the race," Schwartz said, referring to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who dropped out in February. “I’m supporting Donald Trump because we need some strength and leadership in the White House and the world, now more than ever. [President Barack Obama] has completely failed in foreign policy."
“I think it’s going to be heavily Cruz-oriented,” Schwartz said. “I’m getting robocalls from other delegates who are running for Cruz. They’re very organized, they’re running a slate."
Wendy Warner, a former chairwoman of the Denver County Republicans, agreed that Cruz has a superior organization. She also ran a failed campaign at Saturday’s 1st District assembly to be a national delegate for Cruz. She said she last attended the 1980 convention in support of Ronald Reagan.
Cruz’s small-government position sold Warner on the Texas senator.
“The reason we have such a bloated federal government is we have blown this thing out of proportion,” she said. “We need to get government closer to the people."
House and the state's RNC committeeman and committeewoman round out Colorado’s 37-member delegation. But GOP rules prohibit those three from endorsing a candidate until they cast a ballot.
If the presidential race isn’t decided by the convention, House said he expects he and other unpledged delegates will be heavily lobbied.
“Those folks are going to get phone calls,” he said. “I think they’ll get phone calls directly from candidates."
But Call and Schwartz acknowledged that by the time the race gets to the national convention in Cleveland, it could be over.
“I don’t think we’re going to get to Cleveland without a nominee,” Schwartz said. “I think [Trump’s] going to get to the magic 1,237, and then we’re done."
Still, all the attention is a far cry from March 1, when candidates ignored Colorado Republicans because they opted not to conduct a straw poll at their caucuses like Colorado Democrats do.
Sen. Bernie Sanders won about 60 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 40 percent.
House said he hopes the Colorado legislature will approve funding for a presidential primary by 2020, which would engage more voters than the caucus system.
“I personally believe a presidential primary is a better option for Colorado."
— Sandra Fish is a Colorado journalist who specializes in politics and data. Follow her on Twitter @fishnette .