Trump aides plot '2-phase' strategy to win potential contested convention

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Who Are the Delegates That Could Pick the GOP Nominee?

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has a clear answer to questions about a contested convention in Cleveland — it's not happening.

"I know the press likes to talk about the brokered convention," he told NBC this week, "but I think we're doing really well."

SEE ALSO: Emotional baggage: Vladimir Putin ribs John Kerry over carrying his own luggage

The dealmaker, however, is not leaving anything to chance.

While Trump publicly dismisses talk of a battle in Cleveland, he is quietly assembling a team of seasoned operatives to manage a contested convention. Their strategy, NBC has learned, is to convert delegates in the crucial 40 days between the end of the primaries and the convention - while girding for a floor fight in Cleveland if necessary.

The outreach is already underway.

"We are talking to tons of delegates," says Barry Bennett, a former Ben Carson campaign manager now leading the delegate strategy for Trump.

Under Republican Party rules, a candidate who wins a majority of 1,237 delegates during the primaries clinches the presidential nomination. If no candidate wins that majority, delegates vote on the nominee at an open convention.

Related: What Is a Brokered Convention?

Bennett says the campaign has planned two distinct phases for winning in an open convention.

First, there is a window to lock down delegate commitments between the last primary on June 7 and the convention start on July 18.

"You've got 40 days between the last primary and the convention," Bennett says, "to go woo the appropriate number of unbound delegates." It's a long time if the gap is small.

"You still have a chance to put together 50 or 75 delegates to win on the first ballot," Bennett says, "that's Phase One."

The campaign could obtain signed, public commitments from those delegates in June — signaling to the rest of the party that Trump will be the nominee. Sources in the Trump campaign say this approach thwarts a key premise of the "Stop Trump" effort, which assumes a long floor fight if Trump finishes the primaries without a delegate majority.

The campaign believes, however, that it could line up those personal commitments from the remaining delegates. Then it would march into Cleveland with an orderly victory on the first ballot.

The math shows that this is an achievable path.

There are now 323 delegates currently up for grabs on the first ballot. These are delegates who backed Rubio and Carson or hail from states that don't bind their vote, (such as Colorado and North Dakota).

RELATED: Donald Trump's potential running mates:

14 PHOTOS
Donald Trump's potential running mates, VPs
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Trump aides plot '2-phase' strategy to win potential contested convention

Newt Gingrich

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich could provide Trump with exactly what he is looking for in a running mate — an experienced lawmaker who pushed legislation through Congress for years.

Though he has been actively aboard the Kasich bandwagon in recent days, Gingrich has come to Trump's defense regarding both the establishment backlash to his candidacy and the controversy the frontrunner found himself in after initially failing in a CNN interview to disavow support from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

(Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence

Pence is rumored to be one of the final few people on Donald Trump's short list to be running mate. He appeared with him mere days before Trump was expected to announce his decision, and even met with Trump's family. 

Pence found himself in the spotlight in recent months after defending Indiana's religious liberty law that was criticized by many as being discriminatory against the LGBT community. 

(Photo by REUTERS/John Sommers II)

Ivanka Trump

A wildcard choice for sure, some began to wonder if Donald Trump might consider naming his daughter as his running mate after Sen. Bob Corker suggested the move shortly after taking himself out of the mix. 

Ivanka, who would turn 35 mere days before the election, has not addressed the rumors, but brother Eric backed her

(Photo by REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

Michael Flynn

The 57-year-old retired lieutenant general has been advising the campaign on foreign affairs for months, but as Flynn's under-the-radar candidacy gained steam as Trump's decision drew near.

Conservative supporters have warned that Flynn isn't sufficiently tough on social issues.  

(Photo by REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is the only 2016 GOP presidential candidate who has endorsed Trump since leaving the race.

Christie could help Trump with more moderate GOP voters, and he certainly has the bombastic personality that would serve as a useful surrogate for Trump, though the two also fiercely criticized each other when they were both candidates in the race.

Back in November, Trump said Christie could have a "place" on his ticket.

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Jeff Sessions

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is the only sitting senator to endorse Trump — and he has already been tapped to lead Trump's national-security advisory committee.

"A movement is afoot that must not fade away," Sessions said during the Alabama rally where he announced his support last month.

Sessions is one of the staunchest supporters of Trump's hard-line plan to crack down on illegal immigration. The senator could also give Trump credibility in the South.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Scott Brown

Former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts was the first current or former senator to endorse Trump. He was known in the Senate as a moderate, and he could help pick up votes with some in the less conservative wing of the Republican Party.

He has supported abortion rights and is in favor of banning assault weapons, but he carries a blue-collar, populist persona. Brown memorably drove a pickup truck to campaign events during his 2010 Senate run in Massachusetts, which was to fill a vacant seat.

Trump acknowledged that Brown may very well be his pick.

During a January event in New Hampshire, Trump said Brown was cut out of "central casting" and could be his vice president. Brown said at the time that Trump was "the next president of the United States."

(Photo by Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Paul LePage

"I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular," Gov. Paul LePage of Maine said while announcing his support for the GOP frontrunner last month on "The Howie Carr Show."

The governor is comparable to Trump when it comes to provocative remarks. In January, LePage found himself at the center of a national firestorm after he made some racially tinged comments about out-of-state drug dealers who come into Maine and "impregnate a young white girl" before leaving.

"Now I get to defend all the good stuff he says," LePage has said of Trump.

LePage also entered politics after a successful business career, but he was reportedly staunchly opposed to Trump's candidacy before suddenly coming on board.

(Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Mike Huckabee

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who was once in the 2016 GOP presidential race, has been defending Trump in recent weeks. Plus, his daughter is now working as a part of Trump's campaign.

Last week, BuzzFeed reported that advisers close to Huckabee thought the vice-president nod was in the cards for their guy.

Of all the former 2016 White House contenders, Huckabee may be closest to Trump ideologically. Huckabee struck a populist tone on cultural issues and, like Trump, vowed to protect Social Security and Medicare if elected.

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

John Kasich

Aside from a few brushups in the fall, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has barely touched Trump along the trail. The same can be said for Trump, whose most brutal attack against Kasich is that he "got lucky" because of the natural-gas reserves in his state.

It has been rumored that Trump would be interested in Kasich as his running mate, though Trump has also recently started criticizing Kasich on the campaign trail.

Kasich has the political experience that Trump says he's seeking. Kasich also hails from the Midwest, one of the most competitive regions in the past few presidential races.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Rick Scott

It has been an ongoing rumor that Gov. Rick Scott of Florida will endorse Trump after Scott wrote a gushing op-ed article in USA Today in January.

Like Trump, Scott rose to power from the business world. But Scott also has clout in the largest general-election swing state. In addition, he has six years of government experience behind him after being elected to office in 2010.

Of note: The hospital company where Scott served as CEO had to pay a $1.7 billion Medicare fraud penalty in 2000.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Sarah Palin

We can dream, right?

John McCain's running mate in 2008, Sarah Palin was a big get for Trump when she endorsed the frontrunner over Ted Cruz, whom she had vigorously campaigned for during his Senate run in 2012.

If Trump is interested in a sharp break with the Republican establishment, picking Palin would certainly send that signal.

It's an open question, however, as to whether she boosted or hindered McCain's run during the 2008 race.

(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Oklahoma Republican Governor Mary Fallin makes remarks before the opening of the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, in this February 22, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Theiler/Files
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If Trump falls short by 100 delegates, he could close the gap by locking in one out of three of those unbound delegates. That is certainly possible, considering he has won about 37 percent of all votes so far.

It is a point that may be lost on some still rooting for a long contested convention — if Trump keeps winning primaries, he won't need many of the convention delegates.

Still, the campaign has assembled a delegate team of about a dozen people ready to game out these convention scenarios.

The team includes Trump's general counsel, former FEC commissioner Don McGahn, former Carson aides such as Jason Osborne, who handled floor operations at past conventions, and Ed Brookover, a former RNC political director with deep ties to Washington Republicans.

The hires come as the Cruz campaign is already proving it is trying to out-organize Trump at state party conventions, where they can add to their delegate count in order to better position themselves to stop Trump in Cleveland. Only two states have held those local conventions so far, and Cruz successfully added to his delegate count in Louisiana earlier this month.

Asked to assess this "Phase One" strategy — picking off delegates before the convention — a former high-ranking RNC official praised Trump's team, but warned there's no way to know if the plan works before delegates are chosen at state conventions.

"They have an experienced team in place to do it," the former official said, "but I don't know how you gauge success before you know who the delegates are."

'Every Man and Woman for Themselves'

Trump faces an even more unpredictable process on the convention floor if he does not lock in a clear delegate majority before Cleveland.

If no candidate clinches the nomination on the first ballot, there are new rounds of voting, and the rules allow delegates to switch teams.

An operative on Trump's convention team, who was not authorized to speak on the record, described Phase Two as an effort to prevent attrition in that balloting.

"Our goal," the aide says, "is to make sure every delegate Trump has now stays a Trump delegate on the second ballot."

The horse-trading also intensifies on later balloting.

"It's every man and woman for themselves," Bennett said, "and that's when the negotiations start."

"It's everything from, 'Come campaign in our state,' or 'Do a fundraiser for a state party,' or 'Put stronger language about right to life in the platform,'" he said. "Or all kinds of crazy things that are important to whoever the delegate is."

The challenge for the Trump campaign will be closely tracking which delegates want to bargain, and what the campaign can deliver in return.

One campaign operative, who joined Trump's convention team during the primaries, expressed surprise at that effort already in the works.

"I think the mistaken impression is that they weren't playing by the traditional rules before," said the campaign staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "One of the pleasant surprises I had, when I joined, was that the state directors were already engaged in the process."

Even some of Trump's detractors concede he is well-positioned to win even a contested convention.

"It's like a recount — always better to go into it with a lead," Stuart Stevens, a former Romney campaign strategist, told NBC NEWS.

REALTED: Donald Trump through the years:

49 PHOTOS
Donald Trump through the years
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Trump aides plot '2-phase' strategy to win potential contested convention
Donald Trump pauses in his apartment 5/20 after receiving the news that the Board of Estimate unanimously approved a 40-year tax abatement plan. Under the plan Trump will purchase and refurbish the Commodore Hotel, which closed into doors 5/18, from the Penn Central Transportation Corp. In return for his $10-million-dollar purchase and up to $100 million face-lifting investment, Trump will have no real estate taxes for 40 years.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Real estate developer Donald Trump announces intentions to build a $100 million dollar Regency Hotel.

(Photo by John Pedin/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Donald Trump with Alfred Eisenpreis, New York City Economic Development Administrator. Sketch of new 1,400 room Renovation project of Commodore Hotel.

(Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Donald Trump stands behind architect's model of City Hall Plaza.

(Photo by Frank Russo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Ivana Trump attend Roy Cohn's birthday party in February 1980 in New York City.

(Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images)

Donna Mills and Donald Trump during 1983 Annual American Image Awards at Sheraton Center in New York City, New York, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Donald Trump attends 38th Annual Horatio Alger Awards Dinner on May 10, 1985 at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Portrait of real estate mogul Donald John Trump (b.1946), smiling slightly and facing to his right, 1983. New York.

(Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

Boxing promoter Don King holds up the arms of Mike Tyson and former champion Larry Holmes during a press conference here 12/1. Looking on is Donald Trump. The fight will be held at the Trump Plaza Hotel.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Donald Trump, real estate mogul, entrepreneur, and billionare poses in the foyer of his home in August 1987 in Greenwich, Connecticut.

(Photo by Joe McNally/Getty Images)

Donald Trump Jr. and Donald Trump during 1988 U.S. Open - September 3, 1988 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Ivana Trump and Donald Trump during Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks Fight at Trump Plaza - June 27, 1988 at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Billionaire Donald Trump and his wife Ivana arrive 04 December 1989 at a social engagement in New York.

(Photo credit should read SWERZEY/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Daughter Ivanka Trump during Maybelline Presents 1991 Look of the Year at Plaza Hotel in New York City, New York, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Donald Trump attends 'Hoop-La' Special Olympics Basketball Game on June 25, 1992 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Donald Trump and Joan Rivers during Opening of The Rose Room in the Plaza Hotel at Plaza Hotel Rose Room in New York City, New York, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Donald Trump touches 07 April 1993 Marla Maples stomach to confirm published reports that the actress is pregnant with his child. The two arrived for Maples appearance in the Broadway musical 'The Will Rogers Follies'.

(HAI DO/AFP/Getty Images)

US business tycoon Donald Trump enters the PLaza Hotel in New York past supporters 21 December 1994. Hundreds of supporters showed up at a news conference where Trump denied a New York newspaper report that the Sultan of Brunei had bid 300 million USD to buy the Manhattan hotel.

(Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Christine Whitman during Opening of New Warner Bros. Store in Trump Plaza Casino at Trump Plaza Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Donald Trump attends Marc Jacobs Fashion Show on April 4, 1995 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

Boxing: IBC Heavyweight Title: View of celebrity businessman Donald Trump and actor Steven Seagal seated ringside during Lennox Lewis vs Tommy Morrison fight at Boardwalk Convention Hall. Atlantic City, NJ. (Photo by John Iacono /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) 

New York real estate giant Donald Trump poses in his Trump Tower office on a giant letter 'T' on May 8, 1996.

(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Portrait of Marla Maples and her husband, businessman Donald Trump, with their daughter Tiffany, as they pose together at the Mar-a-Lago estate, Palm Beach, Florida, 1996.

(Photo by Davidoff Studios/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and Ron Delsner backstage at a KISS concert at Madison Squre Garden in New York City on July 25, 1996.

(Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Donald Trump attending Halloween party thrown by Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss at the Supper Club to kick off Fashion Week.  

(Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Donald Trump open his new building at 1 Center Park West- The new Trump International Hotel and Tower.

(Photo byJames Hughes/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

Donald Trump and his girlfriend Celina Midelfar watch Conchita Martinez and Amanda Coetzer 07 September at US Open in Flushing Meadows, NY.

(TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Celine Dion, husband Rene, Donald Trump & Ivanka Trump

(Photo by KMazur/WireImage)

Entrepreneur Donald Trump and Rev. Al Sharpton speak at a ribbon cutting ceremony for Sharpton's National Action Network Convention April 5, 2002 in New York City. The group aims to further the development of civil rights.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Donald Trump and his girlfriend Melania Knauss attend the Marc Bouwer/Peta Fall/Winter 2002 Collection show February 14, 2002 during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City.

(Photo by George De Sota/Getty Images)

Donald Trump at Madison Square Garden

(Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Donald Trump stands on the sidelines before the start of the AFC divisional playoffs between the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans on January 10, 2004 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Temperatures have reached as low as 7 degrees in the Foxboro area.

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Donald Trump, Visionary Business Leader award honoree, poses with his children Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka at Fashion Group International's 22nd Annual 'Night Of Stars' at Cipriani's 42nd Street October 27, 2005 in New York City.

(Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Eric Trump and Donald Trump attend the Chicago Bulls vs New Jersey Nets game at the IZOD Center on October 31, 2007 in East Rutherford, New York.

(Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)

 Donald Trump delivers a speech with his son Barron after he was honored with the 2,327th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, CA, 16 January 2007.

(GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Portrait of former model Melania Trump and her husband, businessman Donald Trump, as they sit together at a table during the 16th annual 'Lady in Red' gala, hosted by LIFE (Leaders In Furthering Education), at the Mar-a-Lago club, Palm Beach, Florida, December 4, 2009.

(Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images)

Donald Trump sands with Miss Universe 2009 Stefania Fernandez of Venezuela prior to the Miss Universe 2010 Pageant Final at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas on August 23, 2010. Miss Universe is an annual international beauty pageant and along with the Miss World is the most publicized beauty contest in the world. California clothing company Pacific Mills founded the contest 1952 and was acquired by Donald Trump in 1996.

(MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

US tycoon Donald Trump arrives to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, on February 27, 2015.

(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump speaks during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits on April 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. The annual NRA meeting and exhibit runs through Sunday.

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Real estate mogul and billionaire Donald Trump attends Golf legend Jack Nicklaus' Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda March 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. Trump announed on March 18 that he has launched a presidential exploratory committee.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Businessman Donald Trump speaks to guests gathered for the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center on May 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. The event sponsored by the Republican Party of Iowa gave several Republican presidential hopefuls an opportunity to strengthen their support among Iowa Republicans ahead of the 2016 Iowa caucus.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump visits his Scottish golf course Turnberry with his children Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump on July 30, 2015 in Ayr, Scotland. Donald Trump answered questions from the media at a press conference.

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016.

(REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

Singer Kanye West and President-elect Donald Trump speak with the press after their meetings at Trump Tower December 13, 2016 in New York.

(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a photo after an interview with Reuters in his office in Trump Tower, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016.

(REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

 Coverage of the 2016 Republican National Convention from the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, which airs on all ABC News programs and platforms. On this final night of the convention, Donald Trump accepts the party's nomination for President of the United States.

(Photo by Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images) 

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to an answer his wife Melania gives during an interview on NBC's "Today" show in New York, April 21, 2016.

(REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo)

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to reporters following his meeting with Jack Ma, Chairman of Alibaba Group, meeting at Trump Tower, January 9, 2017 in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high level positions for the new administration.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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'Mathematically Unfair'

While his convention team prepares, Trump is publicly casting any challenge to his nomination as either dangerous or unfair.

In a CNN interview on March 17, Trump said "I think you'd have riots" if delegates blocked him from the nomination at the convention.

This week, he told Fox Business it would be "mathematically unfair" if he lost the nomination after winning 400 more delegates than Cruz. On Monday, he called the majority delegate requirement "unfair" seven times, arguing that it's too hard for the front-runeer to win 50 percent in a race with over 5 candidates.


Convention Insurance

Several campaign sources stressed that Trump's convention operation is an insurance policy for an unlikely event.

Bennett says the campaign's internal projections show Trump will finish the primaries with about 1,450 delegates. That number was top of mind for the candidate himself this week, as he offered reporters a tour of his new hotel at Washington's Old Post Office.

"If we do pretty well — just pretty well — we're at 1400," he told NBC News.

To win the bare 1,237 delegate majority, Trump would need to win 54 percent of the remaining delegates, an achievable outcome according to NBC estimates.

Most of the remaining states award delegates by essentially rounding up, with winner-take-all Congressional Districts, a potential benefit for whichever candidate is finishing strong. Cruz currently trails Trump by 281 delegates, after winning all 40 delegates in Utah this week, a winner-take-all state.

For Republican insiders, if Trump finishes a little shy of 1,237 delegates, the key question may not be whether it's theoretically possible to stop him in Cleveland — but whether it is practical.

An RNC official working on convention planning said party insiders increasingly expect Trump to be the nominee, which impacts how hard people really want to push a lost cause.

"Lee Atwater always told us, 'If it's happening, be for it,'" said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "This is happening."

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