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Cruz looks to hand Trump a bruising defeat

Ted Cruz hopes his early and aggressive investment in Wisconsin pays political dividends on Tuesday night, as he looks to hand Donald Trump his most consequential defeat since the Iowa caucuses kicked off this roller-coaster 2016 presidential contest.

Cruz enters the Wisconsin primary as the favorite after leading Trump in the state’s last six major polls. In fact, as Cruz’s strength has come into sharper focus, the Texas senator and his bullish allies have sought to magnify Wisconsin’s importance as a “turning point,” as Cruz put it on Monday, to upend the New York businessman and longstanding Republican frontrunner.

“We’re gonna celebrate a victory for all of America as we turn the tide for a Ted Cruz presidency,” Gov. Scott Walker, who has campaigned with Cruz and starred in a television ad for him, said at a pre-primary rally with Cruz on Monday night.

Cruz himself joined in, predicting that a Wisconsin win “will change the outcome in states to come all across this country.”

A win would certainly be among Cruz’s most significant of 2016, not only because of the 42 delegates at stake and its timing at an inflection point in the calendar — Wisconsin is the only contest in a four-week period — but because it would come in an open primary, where independents cast ballots, a format that has so far favored Trump.

It would also be a major victory for the Stop Trump constellation of super PACs that have invested millions in the state on television ads and must still prove to deep-pocketed donors that their movement is not a lost cause.

Even if he loses, Trump has a chance to regain his political footing with a slate of northeastern and more secular states coming up next that could pose a demographic challenge for Cruz. Recent polls have shown Trump topping 50 percent and trouncing both Cruz and John Kasich in his home state of New York, which votes next on April 19.

Heading into Tuesday’s vote, Trump had already secured 737 of the 1,237 delegate he needs to clinch the GOP nomination outright. The remaining math is steep for Trump, as he would need to win nearly two-thirds of the delegates still to be bound to stave off a contested convention. Should Trump net no delegates in Wisconsin, that percentage would climb to 70 percent.

Cruz trailed badly with 475 delegates and Kasich had already been mathematically eliminated from winning the nomination outright, with only 143 delegates.

At stake on Tuesday are Wisconsin’s 42 delegates, 18 for the statewide winner and three for the winner of each of the state’s eight congressional districts. It’s a significant haul. Only four of the 16 remaining states — California, New York, New Jersey and Indiana — offer more bound delegates.

While Cruz is favored statewide, Trump’s strength in some of Wisconsin’s more rural reaches could line him up, even in a statewide loss, to score as many as a half-dozen delegates or more. Kasich’s campaign concentrated on some of the more liberal reaches of the state, as he was hammered in the closing days by TV ads both from Cruz’s campaign and his super PAC.

Cruz took advantage of the lull in the calendar before Wisconsin to campaign aggressively across the whole state, much as he did in Iowa, from a “cheese castle” in Kenosha to a Christian film screening near Green Bay, to the voter-rich suburbs of Milwaukee, the so-called “WOW” counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington. He especially sought to appeal to women voters, fanning out female surrogates including his wife, Walker’s wife and Carly Fiorina to try to take advantage of controversial Trump remarks about Cruz’s wife, about abortion and about women more broadly in recent days.

Trump, too, campaigned aggressively in the closing days, holding five rallies since Saturday, including in La Crosse, Superior and Milwaukee on Monday alone. But speaking to a half-filled auditorium at his final event, Trump acknowledged his poor chances. “I’m not seeing polls that are great, I’m a little bit down, I’m down in some, I’m a little bit down,” he said.

Whatever the exact delegate count, a Wisconsin win would cap one of Cruz’s strongest stretches of 2016, as his grassroots organization repeatedly has outmaneuvered Trump in the shadow campaign to win the loyalties of the individual delegates headed to Cleveland, both those bound on the first ballot, who could prove decisive in a contested convention, and the even more crucial dozens that will arrive as free agents from the start.

Over the weekend, Cruz scored all six unbound delegates available at local party meetings in Colorado and muscled through a slate of 18 of the 25 unbound delegates at stake in North Dakota. Trump won only a single self-identified possible delegate in the state.

While Trump has talked obsessively for months about his poll numbers, Cruz has begun to incorporate these delegate victories into his own stump speech: “18 to 1, I’ll take that that ratio every day and twice on Sundays,” Cruz bragged Monday night.

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