Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump faces a crucial showdown in the Indiana primary Tuesday with his closest rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
A Trump victory in Indiana would likely put him on a glide path to clinching the Republican Party’s presidential nomination before the national convention in Cleveland in July.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll has Trump with a 15-point lead in Indiana, although earlier surveys varied as to the extent of his lead.
An increasingly confident Trump told supporters at a rally in Terre Haute, Indiana, that he is eager to shift his focus to the general election campaign and away from rivals Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
“It’s really important that we win because if we win, you know, we want to raise money for the party, we want to raise money for the Senate races and for the congressional races and do a lot of things instead of wasting our time with these people!”
Cruz hopes to force contested convention
Trump is coming off five easy primary victories last week in the East and a win in Indiana would deal a major blow to Cruz and his hopes of forcing a contested convention.
Cruz is on a campaign blitz of Indiana in the final hours before the primary. During an encounter with reporters in northern Indiana, he lumped Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton together as he made a last-minute appeal for Republican support.
“Do you want to turn on the television and see a president, Republican or Democrat, who embarrasses you?”
Cruz is desperate for a win in Indiana that would make it more difficult for Trump to secure the necessary delegates before the convention, perhaps setting up a multi-ballot battle for the nomination in Cleveland.
“I’m not getting to 1,237 delegates and Donald J. Trump is not getting to 1,237 delegates. And the Hoosier [Indiana] state is going to have a powerful voice in making that clear,” Cruz told supporters in Indianapolis recently, accompanied by his vice presidential running mate, former tech executive and failed Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.
Cruz looks for boost from Fiorina
Cruz picked Fiorina with the hope of energizing conservative voters before the Indiana vote and she has become a featured speaker during his campaign events. “There is a lot at stake and, in fact, this is a fight. This is a fight for the soul of our party and the future of our nation,” she told cheering supporters in Indianapolis.
Cruz also got a last-minute boost with the endorsement of Indiana’s popular governor, Mike Pence.
“I see Ted Cruz as a principled conservative who has dedicated his career to advocating the [former president Ronald] Reagan agenda and I’m pleased to support him.” Before endorsing Cruz, Pence also went out of his way to praise Trump, the latest sign the Republican establishment is coming to terms with the notion that Trump is the likely nominee.
Kasich goes west
Governor Kasich stepped aside from campaigning in Indiana in a loose agreement with Cruz. The Ohio governor is focused on later primaries, including Oregon in mid-May, and hopes to remain relevant if the July convention truly turns into a contest.
Kasich told supporters in Oregon that he is the only optimistic Republican left in the race. “Some people say to me, your candidacy is about hope. Your candidacy is about healing. Your candidacy is about bringing people together, not having people divided,” he said.
Trump dogged by protests
Despite his lead, Trump continues to face protests, including one last week in California where he spoke at a Republican convention. Cruz and Kasich also addressed the convention, which chose delegates before California’s June 7 primary.
A victory in Indiana Tuesday would put Trump one step closer to his goal of a first ballot victory at the national convention.
“Donald Trump, I think, has to win on that first ballot, either outright with the 1,237 delegates or by getting close and persuading a few others,” said analyst John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “If it goes to ballots two and three, he is potentially in some trouble.”
Tight Democratic race in Indiana
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is also campaigning in Indiana, fresh off winning four of five primaries last week.
Clinton is already focused on Trump as her likely opponent in the general election and takes issue with his charge that she is playing “the woman’s card” in her campaign.
“Mr. Trump accused me of playing the “woman card.” Well, if fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in,” Clinton told cheering supporters at a victory rally in Philadelphia after her primary wins last week.
Polls show Clinton is in a tight race in Indiana with rival Bernie Sanders, who vows to fight on through the rest of the coming primaries. “We believe that we are in a very strong position to win many of these remaining contests and we have an excellent chance to win in California, the state with far and away the most delegates,” he said Sunday.
Sanders vowed to continue to try to win over superdelegates to the national convention in Philadelphia in July; but, Clinton has maintained her huge advantage with the superdelegates, most of whom are elected officials and party leaders, and that has given her a virtually insurmountable lead in the quest for the Democratic nomination.