- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Ted Cruz took an early lead at Republican county conventions Saturday in Wyoming, winning five of the 12 national delegates at stake while Donald Trump and Marco Rubio claimed one apiece.

Cruz unanimously won Hot Springs County — nobody there who wanted to be a national GOP delegate supported any of the other candidates — as well as Sweetwater, Sheridan, Uinta and Laramie counties. Trump won Teton County and Rubio won Albany County.

More than 200 people took part in the Laramie County convention at a community center in Cheyenne. They wrote their preferred candidates on blue notecards and deposited them in a cardboard box at the front of the room as their names were called.

Just over half of the votes cast went to local resident Dick Shanor to support Cruz at the GOP national convention. Shanor called Cruz “the only principled and unwavering conservative” in the race.

Ted has proven he is not subject to the influence of D.C. insiders. Nor is he a mainstream, status-quo type of guy,” Shanor said. “He is truly a virtuous man.”

Two others vying to be national delegates from Laramie County also supported Cruz. One backed Rubio and two were uncommitted to any candidate.

The party needs to unite to be able to beat the Democratic nominee, be it Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, uncommitted delegate candidate Pam Gross told the crowd in a Cheyenne community center.

“I will vote for any Republican who will beat those two people. That’s all I have to say,” Gross said.

The presidential candidate with the largest share of the dozen will be able to claim he has the momentum. But that’s less than half of the available Wyoming delegates.

Republicans will choose another 14 delegates at their state convention in Casper in mid-April. The other three are the state GOP chairman, national committeeman and national committeewoman.

Cruz is the only active GOP candidate to have campaigned in Wyoming, which will bring a total of 29 delegates to the national convention, more than any state of similar size because of its strong Republican leanings.

Wyoming’s county conventions are being held ahead of primaries in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio that could shape the rest of the race. If Wyoming’s delegates get behind Trump, it would shore up the New York billionaire’s support in the Rocky Mountain region after losing in Idaho last week.

But Cruz appeals to social conservatives deeply suspicious of any powerful federal role in the state. Last summer, he pledged to end federal regulations that threaten to impede coal mining during a rally near Cheyenne.

Many in Wyoming are disillusioned with President Barack Obama’s policies. Market forces have caused a downturn in the state’s fossil fuel-reliant economy. Republicans also blame federal regulation for impeding the oil, gas and coal industries.

The upcoming states will be paying close attention to Wyoming this weekend, state GOP Chairman Matt Micheli said Thursday.

“March 15 is the critical day of the election. This is Wyoming’s chance to have its voice heard, really, before the election is decided,” Micheli said.

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