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NM GOP primary still in play despite Cruz-Kasich deal

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz says he won’t compete for New Mexico’s delegates prior to the state’s June 7 primary election – part of a strategy aimed at derailing Donald Trump’s campaign nationally – but New Mexico will remain a factor in the GOP nominating contest regardless.

Cruz announced his decision to abandon the New Mexico primary late Sunday in a surprise deal with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is also seeking the Republican nomination.

The desperate bid to stop GOP front-runner Trump from securing the nomination prior to the national convention in Cleveland means that Cruz has agreed to not campaign in New Mexico and Oregon in exchange for Kasich’s commitment to halt his campaign in delegate-rich Indiana.  The plan aims to deny Trump a victory in Indiana, where he currently holds a narrow lead in the polls over Cruz and the winner of the primary takes almost all of the delegates.

But hours after the Cruz-Kasich deal was announced on Monday, Kasich seemed to backtrack while campaigning in Philadelphia. Asked what Indiana voters should do next week, the Ohio governor urged them to vote for him.

“I’ve never told them not to vote for me – they ought to vote for me,” Kasich said just 13 hours after promising to give Cruz “a clear path” in Indiana. He said he had simply agreed not to spend “resources” in Indiana.

Cruz’s strategy won’t require a major transfer of assets out of New Mexico. The Republican senator from the neighboring state of Texas has not yet set up any kind of campaign operation in-state, according to state Republican Party officials. For that matter, neither have Trump or Kasich, said Tucker Keene, spokesman for the Republican Party of New Mexico.

Keene said the state party encourages all of the GOP candidates to compete in New Mexico.

“The New Mexico primary is going to be very important this year, and when every delegate matters, we certainly understand that campaigns will have to decide strategically where to compete, and they have every right to do so,” Keene said. “That said, we believe that every campaign should fight to win in New Mexico, because whoever our nominee is, the experience of campaigning in and organizing in a swing state like New Mexico would help defeat Hillary Clinton here in November.”

Trump is the only Republican candidate who can clinch the GOP presidential nomination before his party’s national convention in July. Yet his path is narrow.

The front-runner needs to win at least four of the five Northeastern states Tuesday. He has 845 delegates, 392 short of the 1,237 needed to represent his party in the general election in November.

Regardless, Trump can’t seal up the nomination until June 7, when New Mexico hosts its primary along with delegate-heavy California and New Jersey.

“Either way, New Mexico is still in play,” said Brian Sanderoff, the Journal’s pollster and a longtime observer of state and national politics.

Cruz, Trump and Kasich will each be on the ballot in New Mexico’s June 7 GOP primary election, as will other GOP candidates who have since dropped out of the race. So, Cruz can still pick up votes in the state. And based on a Journal presidential poll published Feb. 20, he could still do well in New Mexico.

The Journal poll showed that Cruz narrowly led all GOP candidates in New Mexico with 25 percent support of likely Republican voters, while Trump had 24 percent. Kasich finished dead last in what was then six-way race with just 4 percent support. New Mexico’s delegates are assigned proportionally, meaning more than one candidate can win a share of them.

Not surprisingly, Trump denounced the Cruz-Kasich pact, calling it “sad.”

“Collusion is often illegal in many other industries and yet these two Washington insiders have had to revert to collusion in order to stay alive,” Trump said. “They are mathematically dead and this act only shows, as puppets of donors and special interests, how truly weak they and their campaigns are.”

Joe Kabourek, executive director of the New Mexico Democratic Party said the Cruz-Kasich deal shows that “Republicans are showing a stronger commitment to political gamesmanship than addressing the issues facing the country.”

Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico political science professor, said she suspects that the Cruz-Kasich deal could end up to be much ado about nothing. She said New Mexico Republicans, who showed very little support for Kasich in the Journal poll, are unlikely to shift their allegiance to him in significant numbers.

“I don’t see how you can manipulate voters that way – they know what’s going on,” Atkeson said, adding that preventing Trump from locking up the GOP nomination simply by defeating him in Indiana is a longshot. “There are a lot of gears that would have to shift properly for all of that to fall into place. And for those people who are Trump supporters, this could really mobilize them to get out and vote.”

Nevertheless, the Cruz campaign said it hopes Republicans who hope to stop a Trump nomination will get on board.

“To ensure that we nominate a Republican who can unify the Republican Party and win in November, our campaign will focus its time and resources in Indiana and in turn clear the path for Gov. Kasich to compete in Oregon and New Mexico, and we would hope that allies of both campaigns would follow our lead,” Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe said in a statement.