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North Dakota draws Republican delegate war out of the shadows

In a tightening race in which just 28 delegates could make a difference, the Republican campaigns have scrambled to mobilize outreach operations to North Dakota

FARGO, North Dakota – 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 allows its delegates to vote as they please in July’s national convention, unbound to any candidate – lays bare the three remaining GOP contenders' fight to run up the numbers. 

While it is still possible for front-runner Donald Trump to win the necessary 1,237 delegates outright and avoid a contested 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 on a new sense of urgency as party insiders -- and the campaigns of Trump's remaining rivals, Ted Cruz and John Kasich -- view a contested convention as the only way to wrest the nomination from Trump.

That's why North Dakota's 28 unbound delegates might just make a difference. The three GOP presidential campaigns have scrambled to mobilize at the state Republican convention here this weekend, screening and making overtures to local activists who may be chosen as delegates. In a sign of how important the convention has become, the state GOP went from struggling to find a keynote speaker to juggling three: Sen. Ted Cruz will speak Saturday night, followed on Sunday by Dr. Ben Carson speaking for Donald Trump and former New Hampshire 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.” 

Republican leaders in the state say Cruz has the strongest grassroots presence here: The Texas senator had 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. 

RELATED: Donald Trump's poll numbers collapse as general election looms

Not to be outdone, Trump is sending Carson, a former rival turned hugely popular surrogate. Barry Bennett, a former Carson adviser turned Trump strategist told MSNBC the Trump campaign is particularly keen on keeping down Cruz's delegate haul.

“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 rely on Humphrey to woo support. The plan is to "talk to them Republican to Republican, American to American," Humphrey said.

“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 should favor Kasich's credentials and experience governing a major state. 

The detour to Fargo this weekend comes as the GOP tries to fully understand how contested conventions work and devise a strategy befitting a modern, national one. The campaigns have hired the handful of strategists who know how to work them – and it really is just a handful, as the last contested convention was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford  narrowly beat back a challenge from Ronald Reagan to win the GOP nomination. Ford went on to lose the general election that year to Democrat Jimmy Carter.