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New York cannot save Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump holds a

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump holds a Bible as he speaks during the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's annual fall dinner in Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. Photo Credit: AP

Unless there has been a polling debacle or a turnout flop, Donald Trump will win the GOP New York presidential primary handily on Tuesday. He’s likely to win more than 50 percent and get the lion’s share of delegates. Worse for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, he could very well come in third, giving Ohio Gov. John Kasich new momentum and further justification for staying in the race just before next week’s Eastern seaboard primary (Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island and Connecticut).

Nevertheless, a big Trump victory will not change much in the race. For one thing, virtually everyone is expecting his enormous margin of victory in his home state. A large batch of delegates for Trump here was already baked into the candidates’ delegate estimates; it is not as if a Trump win fundamentally changes Cruz’s delegate strategy. As a Cruz adviser put it, nobody is really going to be shocked if Trump runs up the numbers, especially given the media obsession with the “New York values” theme. Nevertheless, if the Cruz camp is going to get back on track, picking up delegates a week from today and setting itself up for wins in Indiana, the Great Plains and the West, there are lessons to be learned from this week.

First, Cruz is not playing right now to overtake Trump in the delegate race; his goal is to deprive Trump of 1,237 delegates. Cruz therefore should be wary of predicting a wholesale shift in the race — which would imply Cruz matching or surpassing Trump in the next month or so. The name of the game for Cruz is slowing Trump sufficiently so that at the convention Cruz can make the pitch Trump is unfit to be the nominee and will lead to an epic defeat for the GOP.

Cruz should keep hammering home Trump’s incompetence in the delegate game and make a strong case (since the RNC chairman won’t) that the delegate system is transparent, fair and reflects the candidates’ relative political skill. (In contrast to Trump who runs and hides, screaming foul whenever he loses, Cruz should welcome the TV time Tuesday night and use it to defend the nomination process.)

Second, try as he might, Cruz is not getting rid of Kasich before the convention, but he should start using Kasich as emblematic of Washington, insiders who won’t spell out their plans (e.g., Where are Kasich’s numbers for a balanced budget?). When push comes to shove, Kasich has shown he is willing to keep spending (e.g., expanding Obamacare/Medicaid). Cruz is getting squeezed by Trump’s radical populism on one side and Kasich’s moderate mush on the other. The key to his success is reclaiming a bold, but sane, agenda that speaks to voters’ frustration with government.

Third, by laying low, Trump has avoided major gaffes and made the past two weeks about the RNC’s delegate selection system. Cruz needs to turn the spotlight back on Trump. He can challenge Trump to a debate (even Hillary Clinton gave Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., one more face-off) and pressure him to spell out and defend his bizarre policy “ideas.” Cruz should revive the Cruz-Fiorina duo and step up the attacks on Trump’s treatment of women, association with sleazy characters and his refusal to turn over his tax returns. Trump again and again has shown he can dish it out but not take it; Cruz should get back on offense.

Finally, Cruz should be taking a page from Trump’s book and start pounding away at Trump’s general election poll numbers. Trump used to say he was the only one beating Clinton (which was not true even then). Now Trump is the only candidate who will never beat Clinton. (Cruz is within the margin of error in most general election poll match-up’s against her.) “A vote for Trump equals a vote for Hillary Clinton” needs to become Cruz’s mantra.

The good news for Cruz is that no one in this primary seems to have a permanent lock on the race. Momentum comes and goes depending on the demographics of the contests in any given week. For Cruz, that means after tonight there is another set of primaries, another week to select favorable delegates and to keep new ones away from Trump.

Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.