WASHINGTON/HOLLYWOOD, Fla. | By Amanda Becker and Steve Holland
Republican presidential contenders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz vied on Thursday for the support of party leaders who view them as outsiders, and turned a national controversy over a law on transgender bathroom use into a campaign issue.
Trump, during an appearance at an NBC "Today" show town hall, took the side of critics of a North Carolina law passed last month that requires transgender people to use government and school bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificates.
Saying the law, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, was unnecessary, Trump said North Carolina was "paying a big price" because of reaction from businesses that have halted or canceled plans to expand in the state unless it is repealed.
"There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go. They use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate," Trump said.
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas who is a staunch social and fiscal conservative, expressed support for the law, and said the Republican front-runner had caved to political correctness as he seeks to lock down the party nomination and broaden his appeal ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
"Donald Trump isn’t going to defeat political correctness. Today he bowed down to it," Cruz said on Twitter.
"We shouldn't be facilitating putting little girls alone in a bathroom w/ grown men. That's just a bad, bad, bad idea," Cruz said in a separate Twitter post.
Trump's brash demeanor has appealed to his supporters, who say they admire the New York billionaire for not being afraid to say the things that other people believe privately. But his style and some of his campaign pledges have alarmed many in the Republican establishment.
In recent weeks, Trump has begun currying favor with the Republican Party leaders whose support he may need to secure the nomination. Trump's campaign has hired staff versed in the ways of Washington and has begun holding regular meetings on Capitol Hill with current and potential supporters.
On Wednesday, a Trump aide, Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich all wooed elected party leaders at a Republican National Committee meeting in Florida focused on the party's convention in Cleveland. Aides to Trump remained in Florida on Thursday to host an evening reception for party leaders.
All three presidential contenders are trying to make the case to the RNC members, some of whom are delegates to the July convention that selects the nominee, that they have the best chance to win the general election.
Candidates amass delegates to the convention through the state-by-state nominating contests, and need 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination. While Trump, 69, has long led the count, there is still a chance he might not reach the number and he has complained bitterly about the Republicans' delegate-selection process.
But a decisive win in New York on Tuesday boosted Trump's delegate tally. He now has 845, while Cruz has 559 and Kasich 147, according to the Associated Press. The Republican delegate totals include one unbound delegate for Trump and 16 for Cruz who are free to support another candidate at any time.
Cruz, 45, and Kasich, 63, are trying to prevent Trump from winning the nomination outright so they can force a contested convention. That would involve a series of sequential votes. With each ballot, increasing numbers of bound delegates, who are pledged to a candidate, would become unbound until one candidate gets a majority for the nomination.
"Senator Ted Cruz has been MATHEMATICALLY ELIMINATED from race," Trump said on Twitter on Thursday. "He said Kasich should get out for same reason. I think both should get out!"
Cruz insisted this week that no candidate would reach 1,237 delegates before the convention.
RULES PROPOSAL REJECTED
The RNC’s rules committee met on Thursday and, as expected, rejected a proposal backed by several members to change the rules governing the July convention and give delegates more authority, saying it could lead to chaos.
Even if changes had passed, they would have still needed approval at the convention.
A rules change has been pushed by some anti-Trump forces, alarmed by his comments on immigration, Muslims and trade, who want to make it easier for Cruz, Kasich or an establishment candidate to defeat Trump for the nomination.
As the RNC's three-day meeting continues, Trump aides will court delegations from the five states - Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island - that hold nominating contests next Tuesday.
The politically powerful conservative network run by wealthy brothers Charles and David Koch under the collective banner of Freedom Partners will not host events at either party's convention, a representative confirmed on Thursday.
The Kochs, unhappy with a potential Trump nomination, have indicated their network will spend $400 million before the November election but focus on congressional races in order to preserve Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate.