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Jim GallowayGreg Bluestein

From Saturday’s GOP conventions: Why the 1,237-delegate mark is so important for Donald Trump

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Former congressman Paul Broun at the Hall County GOP convention on Saturday. He's trying to return to Congress, running against U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville. SPECIAL

Former congressman Paul Broun at the Hall County GOP convention on Saturday. He’s trying to return to Congress, running against U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville. SPECIAL

Only two of us were on the prowl at county GOP conventions this Saturday, but we tried to hit both of the larger gatherings that were selecting delegates to the June state convention – and, from there, delegates to the national convention in Cleveland.

Given that the Republican National Convention could be an open one, the process has become more important than usual. We witnessed some disappointment but no fistfights, and picked up a good deal of information besides:

COBB COUNTY

Exactly 299 delegates were seated at the Cobb County GOP convention. The chief business of the day was the selection of 246 alternates and delegates to the state convention, and 246 delegates to next month’s congressional district convention. So most of those who turned out at Roswell Street Baptist Church this morning were rewarded with a spot at one of those two gatherings.

Presidential candidate choice didn’t come up on the floor. “When we went through the interviewing process, we did not ask one person who their candidate for president was, because we did not want to know. This is not a candidate’s convention. This is a Republican convention,” Toria Morgan, chairman of the nominating committee, told the crowd.

Delegates and alternates were graded on past activities on campaigns and at party events.

The most interesting portion of the morning was an information session with Randy Evans, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia – who elaborated on a post he sent us yesterday, on what’s likely to happen in Cleveland. And what’s not.

Evans also addressed four changes to convention rules that are likely to be considered at an April meeting of the RNC:

Atlanta attorney and Republican National Committee member Randy Evans. Phil Skinner, pskinner@ajc.com

Atlanta attorney and Republican National Committee member Randy Evans. Phil Skinner, pskinner@ajc.com

— One would unbind unbind all delegates. That’s unlikely to pass.

— Currently, a candidate must win a majority of delegates in eight states to have his name placed in nomination at the Cleveland convention. Proposals have been made to change that to five, or even three. This would benefit Gov. John Kasich, who has won only his home state of Ohio so far.

“I have consistently said if you play seven innings of a ball game, you need to finish the last two innings with the same rules you started with,” Evans said.

— A third rule change proposal would permit candidates to pledge delegates. This would allow two to combine forces and broker the main outcomes of the convention – both the nomination of a presidential candidate and selection of his running mate. Evans indicated he’s likely to oppose that, too, because it would reduce the clout of individual delegates.

On his existing trajectory, Evans said, billionaire Donald Trump is likely to enter Cleveland 75 or 100 short of the 1,237 needed for outright nomination.

However, should the current three-man GOP race whittle itself down to two candidates, Evans said, things change. Most of the remaining states that award delegates proportionally have an “escape” clause. If a single candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, then the awarding of delegates shifts from proportional to winner-take-all.

“It’s ‘way more likely than not that we end up with a presumptive nominee. It’s not that I know some inside secret. It’s that I know how the process that I designed actually works,” Evans said.

“It’s why I chuckled when I heard Governor Romney talk about strategic voting. Cause I told him it might be helpful if he first knew how it worked before he started recommending how people could strategically vote.”

Another issue the RNC is likely to take up at its April meeting is the status of delegates belonging to candidates who have suspended their campaigns. “There’s a genuine debate on the rules committee, as to how a suspended candidacy or a terminated or withdrawn candidacy operates to release their delegates.

“I think each candidate who earned those delegates should have an important say,” Evans said.

That Evans projected Trump to fall just short of the mark in Cleveland is important. “If you have 1,237 delegates, you not only get the nomination, you get to set the rules committee, you get to set the resolutions committee,” Evans said.

A candidate who reaches the 1,237-delegate mark gets to decide which delegates are seated and which ones are not. What the platform of the party says and what it does not. He’s in the driver’s seat.

More and more prominent Republicans are accepting, however grudgingly, that Donald Trump is likely to be their presidential nominee.

But the 1,237-delegate mark may be their final line of resistance. The Republican party will probably be his vehicle. But keep him short of 1,237, and they might not have to hand over the keys.

FULTON COUNTY

At the Fulton County GOP meet, held at a high school in Sandy Springs, the calls for unity largely drowned out potential strife.

A row of Donald Trump supporters, largely newcomers to the party, sat in the back of the auditorium with an eye on challenging delegates. But many were gone long before they had a chance to try to be counted.

“We just don’t know the rules,” said one of the Trump supporters, among several interviewed who declined to speak publicly.

Instead, the event was punctuated by a message of party cohesion. Bob Shaw, a longtime Fulton County Republican organizer and former state chairman, opened the vote with a not-so-subtle critique of Erick Erickson, the Atlanta talk show host who has flirted with the idea of a third-party ticket.

“The people who say, ‘If so and so wins, I’m not voting’ – well, that is the most foolish thing you can do,” said Shaw. “Don’t claim to be a Republican if you’re going to sit idly by in the election. Because you’re going to put her in the White House.”

The her, of course, was Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Even those squarely not in the Trump camp made a plea for him. Former congressman Jack Kingston, who has endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, praised each of the three candidates left in the race.

“They’re all quality candidates, and I’m going to support whoever it is,” said Kingston. “And I’m going to do it very enthusiastically.”

Of Trump, Kingston said he’s tapped into the anger against the “pampered special interests” like Occupy Wall Street and “college students walking around with cell phones feeling oppressed.”

Many of the Trump supporters gathered to make a case to be party delegates huddled in the back of the auditorium. As they trickled away, GOP operative Seth Weathers, a Trump ally who briefly ran a super PAC for the billionaire, said the fact that they showed up spoke volumes.

“It shows the enthusiasm. It shows that Donald Trump is bringing in the blue-collar voters who haven’t been included,” said Weathers. “We’ve been trying to get those blue collar voters involved. Now they’re getting involved, and we’re not sure if the party will let them.”