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North Dakota Draws Republican Delegate War Out of the Shadows

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FARGO, N.D. – The shadowy war for Republican delegates will step into the spotlight this weekend in North Dakota, where the state’s lack of a presidential caucus or primary – and a quirky rule that leaves delegates to vote as they please in July’s national convention – lays bare each campaign’s fight to draw party insiders to their team.

While the campaigns insist they can win the nomination without a contested national convention – a last-ditch method for choosing the nominee, which allows a couple thousand delegates to vote over and over, round by round, until someone secures majority support – the hunt for unbound delegates has taken a back seat to high-profile contests and televised town halls.

But in a sign of the tightening race in which North Dakota’s 28 delegates might just make a difference, the three Republican campaigns have scrambled to mobilize here, screening and beginning outreach to likely delegates. In less than a month, North Dakota’s GOP went from struggling to find a keynote speaker for their state convention to juggling three: Sen. Ted Cruz will speak Saturday night, followed on Sunday by Dr. Ben Carson speaking for Donald Trump and former Sen. Gordon Humphrey on behalf of Gov. John Kasich.

“I really didn’t think we’d play this big a role,” the state party’s Executive Director Roz Leighton told MSNBC. “All of a sudden, we have all these people who want to talk.”

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Republican leaders in the state said Cruz has the strongest grassroots presence here: He’d already begun reaching out to likely delegates ahead of the state convention, and his preacher father, Rafael Cruz, has been campaigning across the state this week.

Not to be outdone, Trump is sending his highest profile and hugely popular surrogate in Carson to address the state’s convention, where the former candidate’s adviser-turned-Trump-strategist Barry Bennett told MSNBC he’ll ask the state’s delegates to throw their support behind the real estate mogul.

Bennett said the Trump campaign is particularly keen on making sure Cruz doesn’t win too many delegates.

“It’s more do or die for [Cruz],” Bennett said of North Dakota’s delegates. “We probably have 10 or 15 priorities. It is one of them.”

Kasich – whose future in the race relies entirely on a contested national convention creating an opening for him – will send in former New Hampshire Sen. Humphrey to wine and dine the likely delegates. The plan is to “talk to them Republican to Republican, American to American,” Humphrey said, in hopes of snagging some supporters for his team.

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“That’s no small pot of delegates when the question is ‘Can Trump get to 1,237?’ Or on the other side, ‘Can the anti-Trumpers keep him from getting to 1,237?’” Humphrey told MSNBC.

Humphrey said because of who the North Dakota delegates are – three are party leaders, while the other 25 are selected using a metric that prioritizes time and money donated to the party – they’re likely to favor Kasich’s credentials and time in office over the junior senator from Texas and bombastic billionaire who has never held office before.

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The detour to Fargo’s state convention this weekend comes just as the GOP tries to understand how contested conventions work and devise a strategy befitting a modern, national one. The campaigns have rapidly hired the handful of strategists who know how to work them – and it really is just a handful, as it’s been four decades since the last time there was anything like a contested national convention – and are increasingly tapping more local, state strategists who have run contested conventions successfully in the past.

They won’t have far to look while in Fargo. North Dakota has two contested races in the Republican nominations for state auditor and governor. In the gubernatorial contest, three candidates – a politician, the state’s top prosecutor and a businessman – will duke it out for the party’s nomination. It’s a cocktail that may well be stirred up again at the national convention in Cleveland, when businessman Trump may lock horns on the convention floor with the solicitor-general-turned-senator Cruz and longtime politician Kasich.

This article originally appeared on MSNBC.com.