Ted Cruz campaigns in a packed livestock barn at the Johnson County Fairgrounds in Franklin in April. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
Ted Cruz campaigns in a packed livestock barn at the Johnson County Fairgrounds in Franklin in April. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
INDIANAPOLIS - It’s no fluke that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz stopped by Lucchese’s Italian restaurant outside Elkhart on a barnstorming tour of Indiana this past week. The family-owned eatery is a local landmark. Located on a busy county road, it was started more than 30 years ago by a firefighter who'd learned how to cook for his firehouse crew.

It's now managed by his son, a Republican county commissioner, and frequented by conservative GOP Congresswoman Jackie Walorksi when she’s in town. Owner Frank Lucchese confessed to being a John Kasich fan in the presidential primary race, but he understood why the Cruz campaign wanted to stop there. A crowd quickly assembled to greet him. “We’re a place everybody knows,” Lucchese said.

Same goes for the historic Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor in Columbus, first opened in 1900, where Cruz's young daughters ordered whipped cream-topped sundaes while he shook hands with voters and happily posed for selfies. So, too, the glorious Indiana War Memorial near downtown Indianapolis, where Cruz and his newly announced running mate, Carly Fiorina, held a town hall-style meeting in a 500-seat auditorium named for World War I Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. Today Cruz will continue barnstorming across the state beginning with a stop in Osceola this morning and others in places like Bloomington, possibly with Gov. Mike Pence along.

Most of the score of iconic or well-known venues where Cruz appeared over the course of a week were scouted and secured by Kurt and Kristen Luidhardt, Indiana-based GOP digital marketing strategists. The Luidhardts own The Prosper Group, a digital communications company that designed the Cruz campaign website, www.tedcruz.org

But it was more than their technological savvy that Cruz wanted when he came to Indiana, in hopes of replicating the ground game that led to a resounding victory for him in Wisconsin in early April. In Indiana, Cruz hopes to stop front-runner Donald Trump from taking all the state's delegates into this summer's national convention. None of the other presidential candidates have covered as much ground.

The Luidhardts know Indiana well, in part from their days as College Republicans at Indiana Wesleyan University, and bolstered by 20 years spent advising Republican candidates.

As Cruz backers, they want to see him do well.

“Fundamentally, Indiana is a big state with a wide variety of different places, with different people, with different points of view,” said Kurt Luidhardt. “It’s essential you get outside of the major metropolitan areas to understand that.”

Which is why Luidhardt made sure that Cruz’s stops included a popular burger joint in Plainfield, the county fairgrounds in Lebanon, a middle school in Terre Haute – as well as the Pan American Plaza, named for the 1987 Pan-Am Games in Indianapolis.

Cruz's grand tour of the state hasn’t been without its bumps.

Before the Cruz contingent started traveling by bus, Luidhardt was driving the candidate. Cruz has had no Secret Service protection, which means local sheriff’s deputies escort him for security.

To hand the candidate off from one county jurisdiction to the next, deputies have avoided the interstates and instead taken the Cruz caravan on back roads – including one that was gravel.

“It’s one way to get to know a county,” Luidhardt said.

Then there was a verbal slip at the Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, where Cruz inadvertently referred to the basketball “ring” instead of the hoop.

But that's what happens when you’re on road, burning up miles and time in a state that’s rarely in play during a presidential primary.

The Luidhardts have relied on local Republican leaders for help identifying the best venues for Cruz to visit. Their formula considers ease of access and looks for minimal inconvenience for a venue's owner or manager.

Voters who turn out to see presidential candidates are enthusiastic and press to get as close as they can.

“Sen. Cruz wants to shake every hand in the room,” said Luidhardt, who estimated the senator shook about 8,000 hands in his first six days on the ground in Indiana. “But at some places, with overflow crowds, it can 45 minutes just to get in the door.”

Luidhardt recalled one stop where a woman told Cruz that her mother was deeply disappointed not to be there. Cruz borrowed the woman’s cell phone and called the mother to say hello.

It's a small gesture sure to be overshadowed by more significant developments, such as the endorsement of Gov. Mike Pence, which Cruz won late in the week.

But it's the kind of thing that's critical to winning in the state.

“When you value the votes in Indiana, it’s what you have to do,” Luidhardt said.

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at mhayden@cnhi.com