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Amid 'organized chaos,' Trump backers push for delegates

This is how confident Donald Trump's Pennsylvania supporters are that he'll coast to victory Tuesday: Confident enough to spend the final stretch mastering the impenetrable rules that govern the Republican National Convention, lining up hundreds of poll workers, and strategizing about their real challenge - getting voters to cast primary ballots next week for pro-Trump delegates.

This is how confident Donald Trump's Pennsylvania supporters are that he'll coast to victory Tuesday:

Confident enough to spend the final stretch mastering the impenetrable rules that govern the Republican National Convention, lining up hundreds of poll workers, and strategizing about their real challenge - getting voters to cast primary ballots next week for pro-Trump delegates.

"He's going to win the popular vote without question," said Phyllis Zemble, a former Lower Merion Township commissioner and Democrat who turned Republican to vote for Trump. "And then he's not going to have any delegates to support him."

Even with days to go, the Trump operation here seems to reflect his broader unconventional campaign. He holds a double-digit lead in statewide polls despite a campaign that has largely ignored Pennsylvania.

"It's kind of organized chaos," said Mike Barley, a former Pennsylvania GOP executive director and campaign veteran, though not a declared Trump supporter.

With or without direction from above, Trump's supporters have coalesced to carry the torch. They are men and women, young and old, passionate about their candidate and hoping to make a political statement.

Trump has yet to visit the Philadelphia region - his closest stop was a Thursday night rally in Harrisburg - but his campaign opened a Southeastern Pennsylvania headquarters and phone bank in Conshohocken this week.

On Thursday, four volunteers sat in the office, a dimly lit room plastered with navy-and-white Trump signs in a stone building a few blocks off Fayette Street.

They would not talk about their efforts; an organizer said they could not without approval from the national campaign.

But Ralph Wike, a Trump supporter running for delegate, could.

"This is probably the largest grassroots campaign we have ever seen," Wike, a Springfield, Delaware County, man who runs a company that provides disc jockeys, said as he left the office. Wike said he likes Trump because he "can't disagree with anything he says," only "maybe sometimes how he says it."

For Trump, Wike and others like him have suddenly become crucial surrogates.

The quirky rules derided as the Pennsylvania loophole mean would-be delegates to the GOP convention run without committing themselves to a presidential candidate. Republican voters in each congressional district pick three delegates, though ballots do not disclose their allegiances (as the Democrats' do).

Trump supporters are scrambling to make sure his voters also know to cast ballots for delegates who promise they won't turn against him in Cleveland in July.

"We want to make sure the voters, before they get in the booth, [know] so they can make an informed choice," said Audrey Strein, a Trump organizer in Bucks County, where three delegates are openly pledging to support Trump. Strein, 51, who works in the commercial roofing industry, said her group hopes to staff 300 polling places Tuesday with volunteers handing out the names of their favored candidates for delegate. She plans to devote 11 hours Saturday to the campaign.

"Lots of people want to get active and participate," said Strein, of Jamison. "We're not going to let any stone be unturned."

The Conshohocken-based volunteers are courting voters from former GOP strongholds outside Philadelphia that have turned blue in recent years. Trump supporters say their candidate appeals to those Republicans who have lost faith in not only the national Republican establishment but in the local party.

"People are just so disgusted, and they find Donald Trump is a new direction," said Joe Gale, a Republican who last fall toppled the party-backed favorite in his own upstart race for Montgomery County commissioner. "I'm proof that there's an antiestablishment atmosphere right now with the public."

Zemble, the onetime Democrat, said she was drawn to Trump in part by his family.

"He has these wonderful children. You can't have wonderful children like that if you're not a wonderful person," said Zemble, a grandmother who used to run an online art gallery.

With only two events in the Keystone State through Thursday, Trump appeared to be "largely ignoring Pennsylvania," said Michael Federici, chief political analyst at Mercyhurst University.

On Wednesday, Trump was in Indiana, though that state's primary is not until May 3. He was set to stop in Delaware on Friday.

Federici noted that Trump spoke in Buffalo on Monday - though he was already set to handily win New York, his home state - but did not make the 90-minute drive over the border to Erie. He wondered if that was a mistake.

"Because he's gotten so much more media attention than everybody else and his personality fills up the room everywhere he goes, he thinks that that's enough . . . [but] he doesn't know how to play the game," he said. "There's a certain conceit, arrogance, hubris that's involved."

Trump's supporters say it's working for him.

"It's just a smattering of people from all over that are coming together," Strein said, "and that's where the energy comes from."

jmcdaniel@philly.com

610-313-8205 @McDanielJustine

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