FARGO, North Dakota — Appealing to a group of party insiders in a backroom meeting at Fargo's Ramada Plaza Suites on Saturday night, Dr. Ben Carson argued that unifying behind Trump was best for the Republican Party.
The Trump surrogate made his pitch to dozens of North Dakota's delegates, many of them the state delegates likely to win the coveted 28 unbound national delegate slots to the Republican National Convention. These delegates could play a pivotal role if front-runner Trump arrives in Cleveland without a majority of delegates: if they support him in the first round, it could be the extra push Trump needs to secure the nomination and avoid a truly contested convention. If they don't, the likelihood of multiple ballots increases — where more and more delegates are eventually allowed to vote as they please, ballot after ballot, until one candidate wins a majority of the nation's delegates.
The meetings, held during the North Dakota Republican Party State Convention, were part of an organized effort by the Trump campaign to screen and woo delegates, plying them with Make America Great Again hats, drink tickets and face time with the popular surrogate Carson with the goal of identifying, and on Sunday electing, favorable delegates to the national convention. Trump is expected to face an uphill battle with these party insiders, longtime Republicans who often identify as more conservative than Trump, and his campaign has hired up a team of seasoned strategists to focus on the delegate hunt.
MSNBC sat in on one meeting brokered by Rep. Kevin Cramer, who will endorse Trump on Sunday. There, Carson insisted that Trump was the best candidate they could put forward in the general election, and that avoiding a messy, contested convention was best for the party. He defended his endorsement of Trump — the man who famously likened him to a child molester — as a pragmatic decision aimed at securing the White House for the Republicans, adding that rival presidential candidate Ted Cruz is too divisive.
Carson's meetings seemed to be helping: likely national delegates left impressed.
Walking into another meeting, North Dakota state Sen. Dick Dever said Donald Trump would be his last choice if it weren't for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Inside, he asked Carson about respectability, and whether Trump would be right for the office.
"He said we're working on it," Dever recounted Carson telling him. After it was over, he said he'd warmed just a bit to Trump.
"I think I'm more open minded to it," he told MSNBC.
Likely national delegates walking out of Carson's meetings repeatedly said the surrogate was "impressive."
'It softened me towards [Trump]," North Dakota district chair and candidate for RNC committeeman Shane Goettle told MSNBC. "I had some reservations about Donald Trump — he seems very unpredictable. I'm trying to get a sense of his core, what makes him tick, and I got to see more."
Trump isn't the only candidate looking for loyalty this weekend: all three Republican contenders are on the delegate hunt.
While delegate hunting is normal in North Dakota politics — contested conventions happen all the time, with multiple candidates seeking the party's endorsement ahead of their primary and general elections, and the delegates are used to being wooed — it's remarkable that such national star power has been drawn to a state that's usually ignored by the Republican presidential selection process. In the hospitality suite where delegates are entertained by those seeking their vote, tables for governor and state auditor were interspersed with presidential tables that offered promotional info and snacks. Trump's team shelled out for hot egg rolls and sodas while Cruz offered up a tower of Rice Krispies Treats and pretzels.
Down the hall from Carson's meetings at the Ramada, Ted Cruz surrogate Carly Fiorina mingled with delegates in the hospitality suites for the second night in a row, shaking hands and taking photos with fans, while John Kasich surrogate Sen. Gordon Humphrey made an appearance at the Ramada too.
Earlier in the day on Saturday, Sen. Ted Cruz had spoken at the state convention, appealing to the delegates to vote for national delegates who will support him in July.
"It is entirely possible the men and women gathered here will decide this nomination," Cruz said, speaking to the more than 1,600 state delegates who will vote for the national delegates and alternates. Carson will speak to them just before they vote on the nomination on Sunday.
While high profile convention speeches certainly impress, North Dakotan delegates and candidates say that in their decades of contested convention experience, much of the decision-making gets done one-on-one, in conversations that allow for personal feel.
Looking out on the hotel suite filled with schmoozing campaigns and delegates Friday night, North Dakota delegate Paul Henderson sad: "The floor fight is right here in the hospitality suite."