STANCE: A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump stands with a sign before 
entering a Trump rally  in Tennessee at the weekend.   Picture: AFP/MICHAEL B. THOMAS
STANCE: A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump stands with a sign before entering a Trump rally in Tennessee at the weekend. Picture: AFP/MICHAEL B. THOMAS

FROM Virginia Beach to the Gulf Coast of Texas, Republican presidential candidates skipped across the south at the weekend, spending mere hours on the ground in some states before hopping charter flights to the next, underscoring how Super Tuesday has a different electoral game board and time clock.

Campaigns that showed up in one theatre — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — for months-long visits now have to compete simultaneously in 11 states. Seven of those states are located in the south, where candidates have been dispatching staff, recruiting leadership teams and juggling dizzying ground games.

"We worked for weeks and months to have a one-week campaign," says David Holt, an Oklahoma legislator and Marco Rubio’s state chairman, noting that attention in his state on the presidential race did not ramp up until last week.

Donald Trump is expected to dominate the voting when Republicans award 595 delegates, roughly a quarter of the total at stake in the party’s entire nominating contest. But delegates are awarded on a proportional basis in Super Tuesday states, giving all the candidates the potential to share some of the bounty whether or not they win a plurality of votes.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s contests may test the classic political presumption that a strong ground game determines success. "Trump has gone wholesale," says Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who is not affiliated with any campaign. "He doesn’t need a ground game because he mobilises angry voters through his rhetoric."

Propelled by celebrity, Mr Trump has outmaneuvered his rivals in the early primaries even though they had outspent him, aired more ads, and set up local political networks.

Last weekend in North Fulton County, Georgia, one of the densest Republican areas in the state, Mark Rountree, a Republican strategist attended his local delegate conference and saw only one candidate’s advocates trying to sway a crowd that in the past rippled with proxies for multiple nominees. At this meeting, only one candidate — Ohio governor John Kasich — seemed to show up.

"I’ve been going to these things for 30 years and I’ve never seen that," Mr Rountree said, noting that ground games in Georgia are going digital. "I think it’s all moved heavily to Facebook and Twitter."

Brandon Phillips, head of Mr Trump’s campaign in Georgia, which has 76 delegates at stake on Tuesday, said Mr Trump had "hundreds" of unpaid volunteers and five paid staff in the state, plus organisers in every county. During the week between Christmas and New Year, he said, the campaign made 2,500 calls to voters. "People who don’t think we have a ground game will be surprised."

While Mr Trump has paid staff in other states, as well, his main focus has been on big events that get national coverage. Still, he has kept some strategic targets in mind. While most of the candidates are holding the bulk of their Georgia events in metropolitan Atlanta, Mr Trump was set for a visit to Valdosta, near the Florida border, on Monday.

Mr Rountree said the venue sends a clear signal that Mr Trump is planting a flag against any support for Mr Rubio coming across the state line. "If you want to stop a Florida tide," he said, "that’s a good place to do it."

On Sunday, at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, Mr Trump was endorsed by Jeff Sessions, the first sitting senator to back his campaign. That news was a major blow to Senator Ted Cruz, who after a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina, is under pressure to do well in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and others rich in evangelical voters.

In Alabama, Mr Cruz has "a couple of thousand" volunteers in the state, including many who travelled to Iowa and South Carolina to work for the senator there, said Birmingham surgeon Chad Mathis, a co-chairman of Mr Cruz’s campaign.

Mr Cruz has no paid staff in Georgia, a reflection of a healthy volunteer organisation, said Kay Godwin, head of the candidate’s grassroots effort in the state. The Cruz campaign, which has been organising in Georgia since May, has six phone banks in the state, chairs in every congressional district (and in almost all 159 counties), plus a volunteer army of more than 10,000 donors and door-knockers.

But Mr Rountree said more traditional ground game tools, such as door-knocking and phone banks, only work well in metropolitan Atlanta, which makes up about 40% of the state electorate, because the rest of the state is so rural.

There is no state Mr Cruz must win more than his home Texas, which awards Tuesday’s biggest prize of 155 delegates. Recent polling has Mr Cruz with a slight lead over Mr Trump in the state, where Mr Cruz has secured the endorsements of former governor Rick Perry and current governor Greg Abbott, and has more than 27,000 volunteers.

...

Trump blames blooper on gadget

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump blamed a "lousy earpiece" and a misunderstanding for failing three times to condemn the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in a CNN interview that prompted outrage from his rival presidential candidates.

In an interview on NBC’s Today Show, Mr Trump said that he had never met white supremacist Mr Duke, who voiced backing for Mr Trump on his radio programme recently and praised him for "taking on the Jewish establishment".

"I know who he is, but I never met David Duke," Mr Trump said on Monday. "I disavowed David Duke the day before."

Mr Trump said he thought he was being asked by CNN host Jake Tapper on Sunday about Mr Duke and "various groups" and Mr Trump wanted to know which groups. "I’m sitting in a house in Florida with a very bad earpiece," Mr Trump explained on Monday about the circumstances of the interview. "What I heard was ‘various groups’."

Mr Trump also said on Monday that he would fight back against the Republican establishment if the party worked against him.

Bloomberg