WASHINGTON/HOLLYWOOD, Fla. Republican presidential hopefuls 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 was asked during a NBC Today Show town hall about the North Carolina law, which was passed last month and requires transgender people to use government and school bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate.
Trump took the side of those criticizing the law, saying it was unnecessary and North Carolina was "paying a big price" because of reaction from businesses that have halted or cancelled plans to expand in state unless the measured is repealed.
"There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go. They use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate," Trump told the Today Show.
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 has caved to political correctness as he seeks to lock down the party nomination and broaden his appeal ahead of the November general 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 demeanour has appealed to his fans, who say they admire that the New York billionaire is not 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 favour 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 focussed 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 Nov. 8 election.
Candidates amass delegates to the convention through the state-by-state nominating contests, and need 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination outright. 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.
Nevertheless, 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. This would involve a series of sequential votes. With each cycle, 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.
NEXT WEEK'S CONTESTS
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 RNC's rules committee is to meet on Thursday but is not expected to make any recommendations on rules changes concerning the July 18-21 convention.
Some anti-Trump forces, alarmed by his comments on immigration, Muslims and trade, would like to change the rules in a way to make it easier for Cruz, Kasich or an establishment candidate to defeat Trump for the nomination.
The politically powerful conservative network run by wealthy brothers Charles and David Koch under the collective banner of Freedom Partners has said it does not plan to host events at either party's convention.
Koch groups that include Americans for Prosperity, Concerned Veterans for America and a Latino outreach group called Libre plan to spend $400 million collectively before the November elections.
But the Kochs, unhappy with a potential Trump nomination, have indicated they will focus on congressional races in order to preserve Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Richard Cowan and Ginger Gibson; Editing by Peter Cooney, Bill Trott and Frances Kerry)
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