Republican U.S. presidential candidates businessman Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz pose together before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nev., Dec. 15, 2015.
Photo by David Becker/Reuters

Trump adopts Cruz playbook in delegate hunt

Donald Trump says the electoral delegate allocation is “rigged” and rival “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz is trying to steal the election away by wooing supporters. 

MTP Daily, 4/25/16, 5:09 PM ET

Trump: GOP Rivals 'Colluding' To Stop Him

Donald Trump blasts an alliance between Ted Cruz and John Kasich to slow his path to the GOP nomination presidential nomination, saying it shows that he’s up against a “corrupt enterprise.” Trent Duffy of the Kasich campaign and former Rep. Jack…
Donald Trump blasts an alliance between Ted Cruz and John Kasich to slow his path to the GOP nomination presidential nomination, saying it shows that he’s up against a “corrupt enterprise.” Trent Duffy of the Kasich campaign and former Rep. Jack…
“Then you’ll read in these papers, like the Washington Post, Trump with the dele—“ he said before interrupting himself on Monday in West Chester, Pennsylvania, shifting to promise a “revolt” if he doesn’t win the nomination. “We don’t even send people! Because we want to win the right way on the first ballot!” 

But in Pennsylvania, where 54 unbound delegates are elected directly by district and free to vote as they wish, Trump is employing the same hunting playbook Cruz has used for weeks. Hate the player, not the game?

Trump insists he can reach that key number – 1237 delegates – by winning the pledged delegates awarded in primaries, but his team is nonetheless on the ground working to sway the unbound delegates his rivals hope to use to derail him. In interviews with eleven of the 41 delegate candidates on the Trump slate, Pennsylvania Republicans running for those 54 spots describe a campaign strategy that’s looking more and more like the Cruz game plan every day.

NBC News reported last week that his team was debuting a newer, more aggressive strategy in Pennsylvania, seemingly aiming to make up for lost time in the hunt for unbound delegates after struggling to sway them away in states like Colorado and North Dakota. Delegate candidates say they were vetted and courted by the campaign in phone calls and emails, but in recent weeks, they’ve begun receiving invitations to campaign rallies – including one in Pittsburgh in mid April and one in Harrisburg on Thursday – and they’ve been promised robocalls and paid advertisements.

RELATED: Trump takes on ‘crooked’ Kasich/Cruz alliance 

Now, employing a tactic key to the Cruz strategy, the candidate himself is meeting delegate candidates. In Harrisburg, a group of approximately 24 delegate candidates were introduced to Trump for a quick photo opportunity backstage before a recent rally.

“I was committed to him long before I met him, but this was like icing on the cake to meet with him say hello and thanks for what you’re doing,” 11th district candidate David McElwee told MSNBC.

“I was honored to meet with Mr. Trump in Harrisburg,” 16th district candidate Marcus Lemon said.

There are some differences between the two men’s delegate hunts. Cruz spends nearly an hour – not just a minute or two – with candidates he’s trying to woo, answering questions and talking strategy. His surrogates – Carly Fiorina and wife Heidi Cruz – have also reached out to Pennsylvania delegate candidates. 

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is funding a lot more advertisements: A statewide robo-call by Ivanka Trump has been asking Pennsylvanians to look up the Trump slate online before Tuesday’s contest, while others said the campaign had told them they’d do direct mailers, digital advertising and district-specific robo-calls in particularly competitive areas, including some recorded by Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Marino.

Trump has tweeted out his slate and talked about it at rallies, and delegates said the campaign is expected to send volunteers out to polling places to distribute lists of delegates who support the Trump campaign, too. 

“I think they realized how important Pennsylvania is, and they’ve done more here,” 11th district candidate Rick Morrelli told MSNBC. “They’ve done a lot with what they could in a relatively short period of time.”

Both teams are working hard to flip the other’s delegates: team Trump has reached out to many of Cruz’s delegates to feel out how strong their support for the Texas senator, and many on Trump’s slate said they’d received multiple calls from Cruz’s team. Morrelli said he was called by Heidi Cruz.

RELATED: Cruz attacks Trump for transgender bathroom comments

Just as Trump insists that votes – and not delegates – are what should matter, his campaign has still convinced a handful of candidates who initially vowed to support their district’s winner in the convention to change their minds and support him no matter the outcome.

Lynne Ryan, a Trump volunteer and delegate candidate, initially said she’d vote for her district’s winner, but told MSNBC on Monday she’s just going to vote for Trump no matter what happens because she felt the unbound delegate position was “disingenuous.” 

And if another candidate wins her district?

“Should he get 35 percent of the vote, shouldn’t he at least get one delegate?” she said. “I disagree with the unbound delegates but we can’t change that, we have to play by the rules.”