DENVER — While the focus of the Republican presidential campaign shifts eastward to the New York primary, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is pivoting west, where he is quietly trying to chip away at Donald Trump's lead in the race for convention delegates.
Cruz won six pledged delegates during a pair of obscure, congressional-level Colorado GOP assemblies on Saturday. He is also poised to make gains in several other western Republican contests, including a possible sweep of Colorado's remaining assemblies, due to conclude Saturday. Cruz's success in the complex delegate game is helping him counter Trump's headline-grabbing wins in big states and would give the Texas senator a tactical advantage should the party's presidential nomination come down to a rare contested convention.
"Cruz is ahead of everyone on this," Republican election lawyer Ben Ginsberg said, describing Cruz's aggressive but quiet delegate strategy as "equally important" to the actual votes.
Cruz has racked up some outright popular vote victories, most recently by soundly winning Wisconsin's primary Tuesday and squeezing Trump's narrow, but achievable, path to the nomination. Still, Trump is heavily-favored in the upcoming round of northeastern primaries, especially in the billionaire's home state of New York on April 19.
That's why Cruz's team has been busy at work in states like North Dakota, where convention delegates are selected directly by party officials.
These tedious, complicated and insider-heavy events are key to the party's organizational structure, a concept new to Trump but not to Cruz, who rose to prominence in Texas through the GOP's grass roots.
Trump's campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but he has complained that caucuses are unrepresentative, and said that delegate fights are tricks to subvert the voters' will.
Cruz has outmaneuvered Trump in all the caucus states, beginning in Iowa. In North Dakota last week, he scooped up endorsements from delegates selected at the party's state convention Saturday.
All 28 of North Dakota's delegates will go to the national convention free to support the candidate of their choice. But in interviews, 10 said they are committed to vote for Cruz at the convention. A few others said they are leaning toward Cruz, though they weren't ready to commit.
None have endorsed Trump so far.
In Colorado, Cruz is taking advantage of an unusual change to the state's nominating process. Rather than selecting delegates according to a statewide vote, as it has in the past, Colorado is holding a series of rolling caucuses this week in each of its seven congressional districts, then culminating with a statewide convention on Saturday where Trump and Cruz are expected to speak.
Colorado Republican operatives say that, just by winning the congressional gatherings, Cruz could lock down a majority of the 34 delegates up for grabs, even before Saturday's convention.
Cruz's delegate strategy stretches beyond North Dakota and Colorado. He campaigned through swing regions of Wisconsin long before Trump set foot there. He also locked up support from almost all of Milwaukee's conservative talk radio personalities, giving him a free mouthpiece aimed at roughly 40 percent of the state GOP's primary voters.
While Trump remains the closest to the 1,237 target for now, he's not taking it for granted. His campaign announced last week the hiring of Paul Manafort to run his convention effort.
Likewise, Trump said he would open a convention-planning office in Washington, D.C., to also house its delegate selection team.