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Five things to watch for in the Indiana primary

May 3, 2016

Boisterous campaign rallies. Political ads every commercial break. Presidential candidates schmoozing with voters over pancakes.

In recent days, Indiana, which holds its primary Tuesday, has begun to look a lot like Iowa, the first-in-the-nation nominating state that has outsize influence in deciding each party’s presidential nominee.

Indiana’s primary, which falls late in the schedule, rarely matters. But with multiple candidates still fighting for both the Democratic and Republican nominations, Indiana is more consequential than usual in deciding who advances to the general election this fall.

Here are a few things to watch for:

Trump vs. Cruz, one on one

Ted Cruz has long angled for a two-man race against Donald Trump. In Indiana, he’s gotten just that — mostly. Looking to blunt the momentum of GOP front-runner Trump, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich forged an unusual alliance, with Kasich pulling back from campaigning in the state.

That doesn’t mean Kasich is a non-factor, however. In recent polls, he’s averaged around 15%. And the very public nature of the Cruz-Kasich detente may end up alienating voters. Nearly 6 in 10 Indiana voters said they disapproved of the truce in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday.

Still, the pressure to perform Tuesday is most acute for Cruz, who has been hobbled by a losing streak in East Coast primaries. Indiana should be friendlier territory for the Texas senator, who won in other Midwestern states, Iowa and Wisconsin. But the NBC poll showed Cruz trailing Trump by 15 percentage points, and other recent polls point to a Trump victory as well.

Cruz has repeatedly said he plans to take his primary fight to California, which is among the last of the states to vote, on June 7. A loss in Indiana, though, may put a serious crimp in those plans.

The Fiorina factor

There’s typically an order to these things: First, a candidate clinches the nomination, then comes the vice-presidential pick. But Cruz, looking to shift focus from a string of stinging losses, upended that formula last week when he announced that Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief and his onetime rival candidate, would serve as his running mate should he be the Republican nominee.

The announcement was derided by many political observers as a stunt. But Indiana offers the first chance to see how voters respond to the Cruz-Fiorina partnership. At the very least, the move elevated Fiorina as a top Cruz surrogate crisscrossing the state for a final barnstorming push.

Do-or-die for the #NeverTrump movement

For the cadre of Republicans who have vowed to keep Trump from winning their party’s nomination, the Hoosier State poses a critical test. In the last week, anti-Trump groups such as Our Principles PAC, Never Means Never PAC and Club for Growth have spent at least $1.6 million in Indiana on television commercials, digital advertising, direct mail and phone banking, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Trump’s detractors are battling against a sense of inevitability taking shape around the front-runner. The billionaire real estate developer has 996 delegates, according to the Associated Press. In Indiana, 57 more are at stake; more than half go to the state’s overall winner and the rest are allocated to the winner in each congressional district.

A strong performance by Trump would be a boon to his effort to clinch the nomination outright with 1,237 delegates by the end of the primary season — or at least hitting close to that mark. Cruz and Kasich have repeatedly argued that close is not enough to avoid a contested convention. But many Republican primary voters say they believe the top vote-getter should win the nomination, rather than requiring Trump to amass a majority, and if he were to fall short, letting convention delegates decide.

Sanders‘ last stand

After strong victories in five of the last six primary contests, Hillary Clinton has what may be unstoppable momentum in the Democratic race. But her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, isn’t giving up, pledging this week “to fight for every last vote.”

Sanders has put in a lot of resources in Indiana, holding large rallies across the state in recent days and saturating the airwaves with campaign advertisements.

He has a few reasons to be hopeful. Recent polls show Sanders locked in a tight race with Clinton. And he generally performs better among white voters than among minorities, and Indiana is a mostly white state.

Still, Clinton’s momentum in recent weeks is undeniable. Will Sanders supporters go to the polls if they think Clinton is a shoo-in for the nomination? And while a Sanders victory would be symbolic, giving his campaign badly needed energy before the California primary, he is unlikely to make a significant dent in her lead in pledged delegates.

Does Sanders drop out?

If Sanders loses Tuesday, what happens to his campaign?

He has vowed to keep fighting all the way to the convention and has laid the framework for a campaign in California. But after repeated losses to Clinton, his campaign has seen its fundraising efforts falter. It recently laid off hundreds of workers.

Disappointing results in Indiana would further hinder Sanders’ already narrow path toward victory and would probably result in renewed calls for him to exit the race.

Sanders could keep fighting through the summer. But after losing four of last week’s Eastern primaries, he acknowledged in a statement that he was focused on shaping the official platform at the Democratic National Convention.

melanie.mason@latimes.com

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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