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Cruz, Kasich Join Forces In Last-Ditch Effort To Stop Trump

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The most unconventional presidential campaign in recent memory has taken another twist. Last night, the campaigns of John Kasich and Ted Cruz announced that they would divvy up some of the upcoming primary contests in an effort to block Donald Trump from getting the nomination. Trump had a few things to say about that during a campaign stop today in Rhode Island.

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DONALD TRUMP: Because it's a rigged system, because it's a corrupt enterprise, in politics, you're allowed to collude. So they colluded, and actually I was happy because it shows how weak they are. It shows how pathetic they are.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: NPR's Sarah McCammon is following the Republican race, and she's in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where Trump is speaking tonight. First, Sarah, exactly what is this deal between Cruz and Kasich?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, Cruz and Kasich are trying to keep Trump from getting enough delegates on the first round of voting at this summer's Republican National Convention. That's 1,237 to get the nomination on the first round. And what they're trying to do is target a few states where they each think they have the best chance of winning delegates.

So for Cruz, that's Indiana. For Kasich, it's Oregon and New Mexico. And, Audie, we should note that there are many more states voting between now and the end of the primaries on June 7. Kasich and Cruz say they will both compete in those other states.

CORNISH: So that's the word from the campaigns. What have we actually heard from the candidates?

MCCAMMON: Well, Kasich today tried to play it off as though this is just normal strategizing and targeting of states that always goes on in campaigns. Here he is speaking to reporters today in Philadelphia.

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JOHN KASICH: I'm not going to spend resources in Indiana. He's not going to spend them in other places. So what? What's the big deal?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So who should your supporters vote for in Indiana?

KASICH: Well, they - I've never told them not to vote for me. They ought to vote for me, but I'm not over there campaigning and spending resources.

MCCAMMON: Meanwhile, Ted Cruz went even further than that. Here's how he framed the deal speaking today in all-important Indiana which votes next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: It is big news today that John Kasich has decided to pull out of Indiana, to give us a head-to-head contest with Donald Trump. That is good for the men and women of Indiana. It's good for the country to have a clear and direct choice.

MCCAMMON: And, Audie, Cruz has been saying all along that he has the best show at taking down Trump. And he's been looking for a one-on-one matchup with Trump for a while. So Indiana will be a test of that theory.

CORNISH: OK. Give us a little reality check here then about the strategy.

MCCAMMON: I mean, in Indiana, it's a good thing for Cruz to have Kasich out of the way. Polls suggest it could really help Cruz there. Kasich, on the other hand - his larger goal has been, for quite a while, just to get to an open convention. That's his only shot at the nomination at this point.

CORNISH: We - as we heard Donald Trump earlier calling this unfair, he's also adding this to the argument he's been making, calling the system rigged. Could this backfire on these candidates?

MCCAMMON: Right. Trump has been pushing this narrative for weeks now that the establishment wants to steal the election from the will of the voters. And we should note a majority of Republican primary voters, not just Trump supporters, have said in polls that whoever has the most delegates should be the party's nominee.

But Cruz and Kasich really have no other option at this point. Kasich has already been mathematically eliminated from getting the nomination outright for some time. Cruz is all but certain to be eliminated tomorrow when several more states vote. So they both are really hoping at this point for an open convention, and that's why we're seeing this strategy shift toward getting the nomination away from Trump.

CORNISH: In the meantime, we have a number of primaries to go. Where does the race stand in those states?

MCCAMMON: Five states vote tomorrow, and Trump has a big lead in all of them. If he is able to mathematically eliminate Cruz, that will bolster his argument that he should get the nomination. And then next week is Indiana, which is shaping up to be a big battleground.

Trump is up but only in single digits in recent polls over Ted Cruz, so Cruz could have a shot of taking Trump down. But if Trump wins Indiana, it gets hard to see who stops him - Cruz or anyone else.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon on the campaign trail in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Thanks so much, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.