COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — First Steve Barlock discovered he had to join the Republican Party to support Donald Trump in the Colorado GOP caucuses. That was the easy part.
What followed was a misadventure that could plague the GOP front-runner in more states unless Trump's grass-roots supporters, often political outsiders themselves, get more help navigating the inside battle for delegates.
Trump's national campaign is largely staffed by an insular circle with little experience in the complexities of presidential politics. The Colorado debacle has revealed another factor holding back the billionaire front-runner as he tries to lock down enough delegates to clinch the nomination: the inexperience of his supporters.
After signing on to the GOP, Barlock had to attend a series of caucus-style events, known in Colorado as "assemblies," as he tried to become a delegate for Trump to the Republican National Convention this summer.
The paralegal printed reams of rules and forms. He began hand-searching party websites for lists of people eligible to vote at the statewide assembly so he could contact them and ask for their support.
In return, his inbox flooded with emails promoting the slate for Ted Cruz, a Trump rival. When Trump supporters countered with their own list, it was riddled with typos and occasionally listed people ineligible to serve.
In the end, Barlock and others like him were overwhelmed.
Cruz swept all 34 delegates elected at the state's assemblies. Barlock had to be content with becoming one of Trump's seven alternates to the convention.
"We were really doing it by the skin of our teeth, and no idea how to do it," said Barlock, 44.
Cruz has been steadily winning caucus states or other small-scale gatherings that yield delegates, running up enough that the Texas senator may deny Trump the 1,237 needed for the nomination at the Cleveland convention in July.
Colorado proved his biggest coup yet. Trump tweeted a video of a supporter burning his Colorado GOP registration and contended "the system is rigged" in an interview.
The Colorado GOP chairman, Steve House, said he's received 30,000 complaints and some death threats.
Trump increasingly needs to lock down every last delegate to be assured of the nomination.
Knowledgeable and motivated ground-level volunteers are essential in caucuses and state party conventions where delegates are selected. Without them, Trump has often been beaten in caucuses or even in states where he's won at the polls.
Trump is expected to lose 14 delegates to Cruz this weekend in Wyoming, where the state GOP will select its remaining delegates after Cruz beat Trump in caucuses in the state last month. Similar gatherings ahead in Arkansas and Minnesota also look ominous for Trump.
Trump's delegate guru, Paul Manafort, complained in a Fox News interview this week of "a pattern at the local levels — abusing the amateurness of the enthusiasm of Republicans who want to participate in the process and are being cut out by backroom tactics."
In Colorado, the state party removed its presidential preference poll from its March 1 caucuses. Delegates were chosen based on their speeches or how well-known they are. They were not required to reveal which presidential candidates they backed, though some did.
The winners of those contests went to county-level meetings that selected a roster for meetings for each of the state's seven congressional districts and the statewide convention. That's where delegate slates run by the Cruz campaign prevailed.
Led by elected officials and seasoned party activists, Cruz's Colorado supporters began plotting strategy in December. As other presidential candidates dropped out, Cruz consolidated support in the state.
"There was not a single paid staffer from the Cruz campaign," said Kendal Unruh, a high school government teacher and veteran of Colorado's nominating process who successfully ran on the Cruz slate. "There was no money from the Cruz campaign dumped in the state." She added: "We reward hard work here."
The 3,800 delegates who made it to the statewide convention in Colorado Springs on Saturday were overwhelmingly Cruz backers.
Trump supporters had little idea of the machinations at work.
Erin Behrens had watched with alarm when some Trump supporters left her neighborhood caucus in the Denver suburb of Arvada out of frustration with the confusing process. But Trump won an unofficial straw poll at Behrens' caucus site and she assumed plenty of Trump backers would make it to the state convention.
She woke up Sunday to the news that Trump had been swept. She planned to organize a protest at state party headquarters on Friday.
At the convention, Connie and George Rosel were flabbergasted at the parade of elected Republicans giving speeches while wearing Cruz stickers.
The Trump slate was hastily arranged: The campaign sent only one staffer to Colorado, fired him 48 hours later, then hired a local operative three days before for the state assembly.
Also, the state was plagued with errors, and so was the state party ballot, which was adjusted from the stage.
The Rosels and other Trump supporters suspected the fix was in.
Connie Rosel had wanted to run as a national delegate, but she said her county caucus leader, a state party official, gave her the wrong information. She knew Trump was doomed in Colorado when his backers couldn't even figure out how to get together until the morning of the assembly.
"Everyone I came across for Trump, they were like me," Rosel said. "We were willing. We just didn't know what to do."
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