WASHINGTON — The locales are not usually pivotal in Republican presidential primaries. And their leaders are hardly national power brokers.
But Donald Trump is planning a charm offensive to woo prominent citizens of Puerto Rico, North Dakota, and Guam in what amounts to a new, backwater phase of this tumultuous nominating contest — in which any unpledged delegate is a hot commodity.
The Republican front-runner, who warned Wednesday of “riots’’ if he captures the most delegates and is then denied the nomination, is now focused on gaining support by way of the Byzantine rules governing the GOP nominating contest.
There are potentially hundreds of so-called unbound delegates, who can vote for whomever they want at the convention. And they are scattered in often overlooked places around the country.
“If you’re an unbound delegate you’re going to get to know Donald Trump,” said Barry Bennett, a Trump senior adviser. “He’s about to start the personal lobbying campaign. Especially where we think there could be blocs of voters.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich’s victory in his home state prevented Trump from making a clean sweep of the five-state contest Tuesday and running away with a huge haul of delegates.
But Trump celebrated major wins in Florida, Illinois, and North Carolina that kept him on a narrow path to amassing the most delegates — and perhaps the 1,237 needed to lock down the nomination — by the time of the July convention in Cleveland.
It’s clear under the GOP rules that if Trump falls short of 1,237, the party could end up hosting a contested, brokered convention where another candidate could wind up being the nominee — based on insider politicking, arm-twisting, and floor votes by delegates in the conventional hall.
So what for the past several weeks has been an air war — with television ads, interviews, and posturing during debates — is now a battle of insiders and lawyers focused on how to amass delegates in a prolonged slog through the spring.
The immediate focus is on upcoming state elections, including in Arizona and Utah, which vote next week.
The campaigns also are poring over arcane state-by-state rules that determine how the Republican Party’s 2,472 delegates are selected. Most are pledged to candidates in an allocation based on each state’s elections. But there are exceptions buried in the rules.
In addition to the unbound delegates from American Samoa and North Dakota, there is the question of Marco Rubio’s delegates. The Florida senator dropped out of the race Tuesday after his humiliating defeat at Trump’s hands, which could mean many of the delegates he accrued will be up for grabs.
In Puerto Rico, for example, Rubio had won all 23 delegates. Now they are free.
Kevin Romero, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Puerto Rico, said party officials received calls from all of the campaigns on Wednesday. The 23 delegates, who were pledged to Rubio, intend to vote as a bloc, he said, for a candidate who promises to support Puerto Rican statehood.
Trump’s campaign is confident that he will capture the 1,237 votes required for the nomination before the convention opens. But it is almost a mathematical certainty that if he is to reach that magic number, it will take him until June 7, when California and New Jersey vote, to clear the hurdle.
Trump on Wednesday morning warned that there would be consequences if he falls just short of a majority of delegates and is denied the nomination.
“If we’re 20 votes short or if we’re 100 short and we’re at 1,100 and somebody else is at 500 or 400, because we’re way ahead of everybody, I don’t think you can say that we don’t get it automatically,” Trump said on CNN.
“I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous, many, many millions of people.”
Florida Governor Rick Scott endorsed Trump on Wednesday, warning the party that a divisive primary will only tear the party apart and damage its chances in November.
“With his victories yesterday, I believe it is now time for Republicans to accept and respect the will of the voters and coalesce behind Donald Trump,” Scott wrote on Facebook.
“It’s time for an end to the Republican on Republican violence,” he added. “It’s time for us to begin coming together. We’ve had a vigorous primary, now let’s get serious about winning in November.”
The candidates themselves did not seem keen on coming together. Trump and Kasich said they would not attend a Fox debate in Utah scheduled for Monday. It was canceled.
Essentially, the delegate math puts the nomination out of reach for Cruz and Kasich, on an electoral basis.
To win a majority of the delegates before the convention, Cruz would need to secure 78 percent of the delegates still up for grabs, while Kasich would need more delegates than there are available.
Trump would need to win 53 percent.
“He’s got a manageable number,” said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer who has served as counsel to the Republican National Committee and several presidential campaigns. “There aren’t that many winner-take-all states left that will help him, but it’s not an unrealistic number to get.”
There are a handful of states left that will hold winner-take-all contests, worth a total of 217 delegates.
Those states include Arizona, which votes on Tuesday, and the June 7 contest in New Jersey. Trump has been endorsed by Chris Christie, the two-term governor of New Jersey who dropped out of the presidential race after the New Hampshire primary and has seen his approval ratings collapse.
One advantage for Trump is that with a three-way race he can take advantage of delegate allocation rules to amass large shares even if he doesn’t win a majority of the vote. In South Carolina, for example, Trump got 32 percent of the popular vote, but he won 100 percent of the delegates.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.