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As Odds Of Contested Convention Rise, GOP Candidates Seek Colorado's Delegates


We're going to take a close look at one place where Republicans are hunting for delegates, and that's Colorado. The state party is meeting tomorrow in Colorado Springs to finish choosing delegates who will go to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. And as Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports, there's a lot riding on who wins those slots.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: Colorado's state convention this weekend is going to be hopping. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will be speaking. The other campaigns are sending surrogates. And every party member in the state seems to want to go, according to Colorado GOP Chair Steve House.

STEVE HOUSE: You can't get a guest pass right now because it's sold out. I don't think we've had an assembly that'll be quite this big in many, many years. And the last time we had a presidential candidate in Colorado at a state assembly for the Republican Party was a guy named Ronald Reagan in 1976.

VERLEE: This is a far cry from the snooze-fest Colorado Republicans expected of the nominating process here. Colorado was technically a Super Tuesday state back in early March. Republicans caucused, but those caucuses didn't allocate any delegates to the presidential candidates. Without anything to win, the campaigns treated Colorado as flyover country - until now. The state's RNC delegates are free agents. They can back any candidate they want. And with the likelihood of a brokered convention rising, that means the state's 34 open delegate slots are an extremely hot commodity.

DJ LAMPSON: I get all the calls, all the emails. It's unbelievable. I get four, five a day.

VERLEE: DJ Lampson is one of the guys who will vote on RNC delegates at the state assembly tomorrow. He's looking for people that value party unity.

LAMPSON: We want to win. That's the whole attitude I'm looking for. So to get unified - that's the key.

VERLEE: More than 600 people are trying to win the delegate slots open at the state assembly. Tomorrow, they'll each get 10 seconds to make their case to convention attendees - 10 seconds. That should make for some funny speeches, but it's unlikely to have a big impact on votes. Instead, campaign organizers will hand out lists of preferred delegates on the floor. Republican former State Sen. Greg Brophy says the campaigns have been working for weeks to assemble their slates.

GREG BROPHY: What you want to do is identify the people that will commit for your candidate who will have that highest the name ID amongst regular participants, so a former state legislator or a current state legislator or a long-time activist who's really, you know, prolific on Facebook or something like that.

VERLEE: As he has in many other states, Sen. Ted Cruz seems to be doing the best at locking down Colorado's delegates. He's cleaned up in the congressional districts that have already chosen their delegates. Cruz's campaign started working months ago to make sure its supporters advanced through the complex caucus process. But Brophy says it's not just organization that gives the Texas senator an advantage here.

BROPHY: The average assembly attendee in Colorado is a conservative. So of all the people left in the race, Cruz is their natural guy.

VERLEE: It looks like the Trump campaign might agree. After days of rumors that the businessman might make his first visit to the state for the Republican assembly, in the end, he decided to stay away. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver.

SHAPIRO: And E.J. Dionne and David Brooks are still with us. David, quick reaction to what we just heard there from Megan?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, well, this is why Cruz is now suddenly considered the favorite in this race. Because of the delegates, he's just doing much better. We just heard about some of congressional races. That was a state race on Saturday. They've already done the congressional districts. And in one district, the Trump campaign printed up a list of people - a slate to support. But two of the names on the slate were not even on the ballot. And in other districts they didn't even get organized enough to print up a slate. And so that level of basic disorganization is hurting them on the delegate count.

SHAPIRO: Now, we're going to hear about the Democratic side of the race in another part of the show. And so I want to take advantage of this moment to ask you both about a couple political questions apart from the presidential race. First, there has been a flurry of the so-called religious freedom bills that allow businesses to refuse LGBT customers. Just today, Bruce Springsteen announced he is canceling a show in North Carolina. E.J., why do you think this is happening right now?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think religious conservatives have wanted these bills before. They failed on an earlier round because of opposition from business, but they haven't gone away. And they still feel as they did before.

For Republicans, this is a nightmare issue, first because it splits business groups from the socially conservative wing of the party. And you're seeing real tension in Mississippi and North Carolina. They're - it may solidify voters who already support Republicans, but it will turn off a lot of young people, a lot of social moderates. And in the case of North Carolina, which is more a purple state than a fully red state, it could be a real problem for Republicans. I think a lot of people in the national party would wish these would go away, but they're not going to go away because people feel strongly about them.

SHAPIRO: You know, David, that phrase - a nightmare issue for Republicans - suggests that this schism in the party goes beyond just campaign politics.

BROOKS: Yeah, well, it's a deep schism, and I think it's a tough issue. You want to give people the right to practice their faith and to be in organizations that reflect their faith. On the other hand, you don't want to discriminate against gays and lesbians. You don't want to allow discrimination of every sort. And so it's one of those moral dilemmas where you want to give people religious freedom.

You want to - you know, people - we do have a right to practice our faiths. But when it impinges upon other people's rights to get promoted, you know, obviously that's a conflict. And so I think this is actually a more complicated moral issue than is reflected in a lot of the public debates.

DIONNE: You know, I do think that a lot of people are for exemptions for religious institutions, for example, who are opposed on moral grounds to gay marriage. But when you start exempting them to providers of public accommodations, to bakers and to florists, then it becomes more like classic discrimination. And that is why these fights are so bitter.

SHAPIRO: With everybody paying such close attention to the campaign, we still have a president in office - President Obama, who delivered this speech on corporate inversions, a phrase that many listeners may not be familiar with. And, E.J., you think this is an important speech. Explain why.

DIONNE: Well, because I think President Obama is saying, wait a minute, I am still here. I have power. And he is moving in what we call these days a populist direction. A lot of people are very upset about corporations not paying their way in the United States. This move will - is a step towards handling that problem. He also put through a tough rule on the kind of advice that financial advisors give people. It's a rule that says their advice can't be conflicted. And so I think President Obama has shown this week, A, he's given to keep governing and, B, he is going to be a factor in these elections going forward.

SHAPIRO: And, David, this seems to tie into a broader theme of sort of anger at wealthy, powerful elites, underlined by this week's disclosure of the Panama Papers, showing how the world's richest people hide money in shell companies offshore. All of these different things seem to be coming together at this rage against the 1 percent.

BROOKS: Right. I think there are sort of two issues here. One is the - whether we allow people to hide money offshore. And that's controlling the tax system so you don't have as many loopholes and as many allowances, simplifying the code to make it more straightforward. I think there's probably support in both parties for that.

The other, where I think the Democratic Party has shifted, say, from Bill Clinton's days - the Democratic Party always wanted to be activists in giving people chances to get into capitalism, to give people - to lower their student loans. But they used to be more resistant to the idea of actually getting involved in the internal operations of businesses. We've seen on a broad array of fronts - not only Bernie Sanders, but also Hillary Clinton and, now, Barack Obama getting involved in the internal operations of businesses. And I think that's a shift for the party.

SHAPIRO: And yet, this idea of populism doesn't seem limited to one party or another or, frankly, even one country - a similar theme across many European countries as well as in the U.S. right now.

DIONNE: Yeah. The reason - I don't quite buy the way David framed this because in the case, for example, of the corporate inversions, around the world, as you said Ari, there are a lot of countries saying lots of corporations are finding ways of evading their basic responsibility to pay tax. And they're saying, no, we can't operate a society or a government if that goes on. So the populism is not something that just came out of nowhere. It's a reaction, obviously, to rising inequality, but also to behavior by corporations that you don't have to be a radical to say there's something wrong with this.

SHAPIRO: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.