West Chester, PA – The three-man race for the Republican nomination is now two-on-one as Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich team up to take on Donald Trump. According to the front-runner, that suits him just fine.
“How pathetic is it when they use collusion?” Trump asked a fired-up crowd at West Chester University. “How weak does this make them look? I said to my people this is great, it will make them look weak and pathetic -- which they are -- as politicians.”
Trump has spent weeks warning supporters of a plot from within the GOP to exploit delegate rules in order to oust him at a “rigged” convention despite his wide delegate lead. In that context, the news that Kasich and Cruz would strategically cede states to each other – Indiana’s to Cruz, New Mexico and Oregon to Kasich – fit his message perfectly.
“When you have millions of votes more it’s supposed to be yours,” Trump said. “It’s a rigged system, it’s a crooked system. It’s as crooked almost as Hillary Clinton.”
Trump lashed out at “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and “stubborn” Kasich, who he nicknamed “1-in-42” in reference to his lone victory in the Ohio primary and mocked for eating pancakes during a recent interview. Trump called out Kasich for refusing to tell supporters to back Cruz in Indiana, despite his campaign’s withdrawal from the state’s May 3 primary, arguing that it showed their deal was poorly arranged. The billionaire insisted their plan would backfire, having a “huge reverse effect” that would benefit his run.
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Critics counter that Trump’s talk of a plot to oust him is a thin cover to whine about longstanding rules that his often-disorganized campaign failed to plan around. The nominee has always had to win an outright majority of delegates on the first ballot or face an open convention, the process for selecting those delegates has been in place for months, and it’s on Trump to follow it. Pennsylvania, where Trump has complained about a complicated process where voters pick unbound delegates by Congressional district, is a perfect example.
Trump told supporters on Monday that he wasn’t preparing for a floor fight “because we want to win the right way: on the first ballot.” He warned that the party would face certain doom in the general election if it bypassed him since his voters would “revolt” and refuse to support the nominee.
Depending on where you stand within the party, the Cruz/Kasich deal looks very different as well. For the activists in the #NeverTrump bandwagon, it’s an extraordinary alliance between establishment and conservative forces that shows the party is finally joining hands to confront an apocalyptic threat.
“They probably should have talked amongst candidates sooner,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who dropped out in September while calling for a united front against Trump, told TMJ4 on Monday.
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For Trump supporters, it smacks of a conspiracy to overturn the candidate with by far the most popular support. To them, the fact that Kasich and Cruz are miles apart politically doesn’t show the party is united, it shows that the candidates were always more concerned with amassing power than whatever principles they invoked to bash Trump.
“It’s ridiculous,” Edgar Green, a Trump supporter who drove in from Maryland for his West Chester rally. “They should have realized a long time ago that Trump is what the people want. “
“The people in power are so afraid of Donald, they’re trying to manipulate people to get what they want,” Marge Green, a 51-year old nurse from nearby Media, Pennsylvania said as she waited in line.
Sean Steinmetz, a sophomore at West Chester University, said he was leaning against Trump in the primary but even he disliked the plan to carve up the race state-by-state.
“Who you want to vote for should be who you vote for,” Steinmetz said.
It’s not the first time candidates have at least attempted to combine forces against Trump. In March, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney urged all anti-Trump voters to rally behind Senator Marco Rubio in Florida and Kasich in Ohio regardless of their own preferences. Rubio endorsed the plan, but Kasich’s team rejected it and Cruz complained it undermined his own effort to stop Trump.
A lot has changed since then to bring Kasich and Cruz together. Back in March, Cruz was still holding out hope he could win without a contested convention if he consolidated support in a two-man race. That route will become mathematically impossible after Tuesday, however, and already is blocked off for Kasich, who nonetheless outperformed Cruz in New York last week.
Trump’s path to the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination is narrow, but so far all signs suggest he’s doing what he needs to do in order to stay on it. He won big in New York and polls indicate he’ll do the same in the five states that vote on Tuesday, including Pennsylvania.
That’s in line with expectations. The big change since last week is new polling in Indiana, where Cruz has hoped his victory in nearby Wisconsin presaged a victory. Instead, several surveys show Trump with a solid single-digit lead. Even more worrisome is delegate-rich California and its June 7 primary, where a Fox News and CBS/YouGov poll each pegged Trump at 49 percent support, far ahead of Kasich and Cruz.
Cruz told reporters on Monday that Kasich’s agreement created a “direct one-on-one choice for the people of Indiana between us and Donald Trump.”
“It's a crossroads for the entire country,” Cruz said of the Indiana race.
While Trump insists that he’s ignoring the complicated delegate selection process by choice, he has taken steps to professionalize his campaign by adding more veteran hands. Longtime GOP operative and lobbyist Paul Manafort took over major operations this month and former Walker campaign manager Rick Wiley and former Chris Christie campaign manager Ken McKay have also joined the team.
The arrival of Manafort has sparked speculation that Trump, who has been less volatile than usual lately, might tone things down heading into the general election.
Trump joked on Monday that he “better be careful not to be too presidential” given how successful his campaign had been in the primaries to this point.
Vaughn Hillyard contributed to this report.