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Sweet: Trump, Carson in the lead — but not where it counts in Illinois

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WASHINGTON — Donald Trump and Ben Carson will hit the Reagan Library GOP debate on Wednesday as the overwhelming favorites in polls — but they have no delegate recruitment operation yet in Illinois, where petitions will start to circulate on Oct. 8.

The other day, front-runner Trump, the billionaire tycoon and reality show star, said he expected his rivals to go after him in the second debate in the Air Force One Pavilion and dismissed it with a “whatever.”

Trump won’t be the Republican presidential nominee if he doesn’t win the votes of enough delegates in Illinois and the other states. You can’t shrug off the grind of putting together delegate slates. Celebrity is not enough.

Presidential contenders — Republican or Democrat — are nominated not by a popular primary or caucus vote in each state but by the accumulation of delegates who will support them at the national nominating conventions.

“Somebody hit me up over the weekend asking me if I wanted to do Trump,” said Eric Elk, a veteran Republican political operative already pledged to help former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s campaign in Illinois. “I told them I was taken.”

OPINION

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Elk told me he has been working on Bush’s delegate slating since August.

He said it was “curious” that Trump’s Illinois ground game has not been launched yet because it is “very difficult” to qualify for the Illinois ballot.

The rules in Illinois for ballot access for delegates and presidential contenders are so complex — deliberately — it’s hard for political novices to get it all right.

Rivals of Trump and Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, will not hesitate a nanosecond to challenge the delegate petitions.

Presidential campaigns look for prominent local figures in each congressional district to run as delegates to increase the chances of getting elected.

Folks may like Trump, but illogically won’t necessarily vote for his delegates if they see a name they know on someone else’s delegate slate.

Trump is wildly popular right now. But a brand-name Illinois political figure — or an up-and-comer — might not want to risk being a Trump delegate and associated with Trump’s views on immigration, women and whoever else he has or will be insulting.

Bush is the best organized in Illinois so far. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and former Gov. Jim Edgar, two prominent “brands,” are expected to be the co-chairs of Bush’s Illinois campaign.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich snared GOP veteran Nancy Kimme to run his delegate-hunting operation in Illinois, plus some other top operatives from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s 2014 campaign.

Kimme, the former chief of staff to Judy Baar Topinka, the late state treasurer, said the two of them met Kasich years ago. Topinka was a “big fan.”

Sarah Clamp, who was the Rauner campaign political director, is on the Kasich payroll doing delegate vetting in Illinois, Kimme said. Pam Kinsey, a fundraiser for Kasich, was Rauner’s finance director.

Chris Schrimpf, Kasich’s communications director, is the twin brother of Mike Schrimpf, who handles communications for Rauner. Rauner is neutral.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has Danny O’Driscoll, a deputy political director, overseeing the Illinois delegate push. Illinois House GOP Leader Jim Durkin, R-Westchester, is Walker’s biggest backer to date among Illinois elected officials.

Leading the delegate drive for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is Chris Cleveland, the chairman of the Chicago Republican Party. “We are actively recruiting,” he said.

Delegates for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are being signed up by state Sen. Michael Connelly, R-Wheaton.

Chris Englander is campaign manager for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. He managed Rauner’s 2014 bid. When and if Paul makes a play for delegates, with Englander he has a running start in Illinois.

No one has seen anyone out there putting together delegate slates in Illinois for the rest of the 2016 GOP hopefuls: Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Rick Santorum.

Fiorina spokesman Anna Epstein said: “We don’t really talk staffing or process, but thanks for thinking of us here.”

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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