FARGO, N.D. — Sen. Ted Cruz made a forceful pitch to North Dakota’s party activists and delegates on Saturday to back him over Donald Trump — warning that a Trump nomination would guarantee a win for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"It hands the general election to Hillary Clinton with a big silver bow," he said at the North Dakota Republican Party convention, referring to the real estate tycoon. "He loses by double digits."
Cruz said that across the nation, the majority of Republicans are coalescing in opposition to Trump, who still leads the GOP field in national polling despite dipping numbers.
They understand that “nominating Donald would be a trainwreck," the Texas politician said. "Nominating Donald elects Hillary Clinton."
Cruz also pitched himself as a unifier, noting his support from five of the GOP’s former presidential contenders. And he hit Trump on two issues key to Republican voters — religious liberty and defense — charging Trump was liberal on the first and lacked judgment on the latter.
His comments brought the fierce maneuvering taking place behind the scenes and on the sidelines of the convention onto its main stage, and laid out in clear terms the fight over North Dakota’s 28 delegates.
The state doesn't have a primary or caucus like most others. All 28 North Dakota delegates are free agents at the national convention and can vote for whomever they personally support. That makes them hugely valuable in the increasingly likely case that no candidate has a majority of delegates before the Republican National Convention in July and the remaining candidates are forced to battle it out for the nomination on the convention floor by cobbling together enough support in multiple rounds of voting.
Cruz noted the significance of North Dakota's delegates: "It is entirely possible the men and women here will decide this entire primary — will decide this nomination," he said on stage.
Cruz has put on a full-court press in an effort to woo those delegates, sending his father, Rafael Cruz, to the state earlier this week to speak at a handful of local party events and meet local activists.
Former GOP presidential contender Carly Fiorina, one of his key surrogates and a hugely popular figure in the party, arrived in Fargo on Friday night for a meet-and greet, mingling in hospitality suites at a nearby hotel before the convention got underway Saturday.
She introduced Cruz on stage Saturday, and also took aim at Trump, saying the businessman and Clinton are "two sides of the same coin" and "will not change the system — he is the system.”
Trump, meanwhile, is behind in the delegate game in North Dakota just as he has been in other states that have recently selected their delegate slates. A Trump aide told NBC News that the campaign in North Dakota has only been working on its delegate effort for a couple of weeks.
Trump is sending one of his key surrogates — former GOP presidential contender and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — to the convention to help him lock down support.
Carson will speak Sunday, and has private meetings planned with the delegates recommended as representatives to the national convention on Saturday afternoon — as does Fiorina.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign is also making a play for delegates at the convention, sending former New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey to make his pitch.