INDIANAPOLIS — It’s been a long strange trip, but the Republican primary may finally be coming to an end in Indiana on Tuesday.
On the eve of the critical contest, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz closed their campaigns with familiar attacks.
Cruz presented himself as the one reliable conservative in the race and warned in an NBC News interview that Trump was "a big-government New York liberal" in the mold of Hillary Clinton who would sell out the right on issues like guns and abortion.
"Do we get behind a campaign that is based on yelling and screaming and cursing and insults?" he asked a crowd of several hundred at the state fairgrounds Monday night. "Or do we continue to unify behind a positive, optimistic, forward-looking conservative campaign?"
Trump, addressing roughly 1,600 of his own backers in nearby Carmel that afternoon, scoffed at questions about whether he was a "true conservative."
"Who cares? We want to straighten out our country," he said.
Instead, he pitched himself as a pragmatist who would impose punitive tariffs to combat outsourcing while cajoling rivals into favorable trade deals and extorting allies for protection money.
"We’re going to win at the border," he said. "The wall will be built, Mexico will pay for the wall, 100 percent. Mexico will pay."
With the tone of an insult comic at a roast, Trump tore into "Lyin’ Ted" and whoever else caught his ire. He even lit into Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race months ago, for failing to turn his superior fundraising into votes.
If Cruz loses in Indiana Tuesday — and he’s behind in nearly every public poll — the race for the nomination will be almost done. He trails Trump by millions of votes and hundreds of delegates and is running on a plan to win a contested convention in July. That strategy only works, however, if he can prevent Trump from winning the 1,237 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination. That’s a tough task even with an Indiana win, but it becomes near impossible with a loss: If Trump sweeps the state, he’ll need just 40 percent of the remaining delegates to reach 1,237.
"Honestly, if we win Indiana it’s over," Trump told voters in Carmel.
Cruz has said he will carry on regardless of the results. The campaign has played up the importance of the state, but an aide pushed back against suggestions a loss would effectively crown Trump the presumptive nominee.
The Indiana primary comes during a difficult stretch for Cruz. Former Speaker John Boehner called him"Lucifer in the flesh" at an event and said he would only support Trump in a general election. Elite GOP resistance to Trump is disappearing fast — even moderate ex-Governor Jon Huntsman called on the party to unite around him — and Cruz’s toxic relationship with his colleagues in Washington isn’t helping.
This sense of inevitability is filtering down to the voters: A Gallup poll this week found that for the first time, more Republican voters hold an unfavorable view of Cruz, 45 percent, than a favorable one, 39 percent. For Trump, it’s 59 percent favorable and 34 percent unfavorable. In a season that began with cries of "Never Trump" from conservative activists, the undeclared "Never Cruz" movement looks like the more powerful force.
In the meantime, the Cruz campaign is putting everything it has into an Indiana turnaround. Last week, it announced a surprise deal with Ohio Governor John Kasich to keep his campaign out of the state. Shortly afterwards, he debuted Carly Fiorina as his running mate and dispatched her across Indiana on his behalf.
Cruz also got a boost from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who endorsed Cruz last week but generously praised Trump while announcing the move.
"I like and respect all of the men that are still in the field for President," Pence told NBC News' Hallie Jackson on Monday. He said he endorsed Cruz because he was a "principled conservative who’s shown the courage of his convictions."
Trump countered this week with an array of endorsements from local sports heroes, including basketball coaches Bobby Knight, Gene Keady, Digger Phelps, football coach Lou Holtz, and football star Fred Williamson.
Cruz is also throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall in the hopes something sticks. In ads and speeches, Cruz has assailed Trump for opposing North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law, spreading lurid scenarios of child molesters preying on young girls in the process. After Trump highlighted his support from ex-boxer Mike Tyson, Fiorina and Cruz rushed to remind voters that Trump defended Tyson when he was convicted of raping a woman in Indiana in 1992.
"Donald, I got news for you: Rapists aren’t tough guys, they are cowards and weaklings and bullies," Cruz said on Monday.
Ideally, Cruz would be able to confront Trump over these issues face-to-face, but Trump has refused his calls for another televised debate. The senator instead settled for an impromptu argument with a pro-Trump heckler in Marion on Monday who told him to drop out of the race.
"Sir, with all respect, Donald Trump is deceiving you," Cruz said. "He is playing you for a chump."
Cruz tried to rebut the man, who was accompanied by several jeering friends, point by point. Did he know that Trump had employed undocumented construction workers and applied to hire hundreds of foreign workers at his Florida resort? Was he aware Trump once supported the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban? Surely he was concerned about young children imitating Trump’s crude behavior?
The man was unmoved. "Lyin’ Ted!" his fellow protesters said at several points.
Cruz nonetheless appeared energized by the exchange, which he recounted in detail at his Monday rally.
"It began with one of the lead protesters cursing at me and yelling at me, so I was glad to see he was channeling the candidate he was supporting," he said.
In Carmel, Fiorina joined Cruz’s wife Heidi, Sen. Mike Lee of Texas, and Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas to buck up supporters at a local coffee shop.
Lee Starr, a 47-year old Cruz volunteer with crosses hanging from her ears, told Fiorina she had been "fasting and praying" in between calls at the local phone bank.
"All our party’s at stake right now," Fiorina said.
Starr told MSNBC that she’s unlikely to vote for Trump in a general election if he becomes the nominee.
"Hillary is bad, but Trump could be worse," she said. "If he gets in and fails, the conservative movement could be over."
For others, though, Trump is the only candidate distinct enough to draw their support.
Waiting in line just blocks away to get into Trump’s Carmel event, auto shop owner Joe Roberts, 39, and his employee Matt Douglas, 36, said they each registered to vote for the very first time in order to support Trump.
"We’ve been waiting for someone worth a damn," Douglas said.