Ted Cruz's expected strength in Tuesday's Republican presidential primary in Wisconsin is threatening to obstruct Donald Trump's path to the nomination and heighten the odds of a contested convention in Cleveland.
The senator from Texas is favored to win most of Wisconsin's 42 GOP delegates, making it harder for Trump to capture the 1,237 he needs to avert a floor fight in July.
At the same time, signs are emerging that Cruz is outmaneuvering Trump in battles among party insiders for the loyalty of delegates. If Trump falls short on the first ballot at the convention, many delegates will be free to ignore their states' popular vote and switch from him to another candidate.
At a weekend gathering of bear hunters here in central Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker said Cruz's strength in winning over delegates at state and local party conventions was laying ground for the senator's capture of the nomination in Cleveland despite Trump's current lead.
"If you want to defeat Hillary Clinton, you need to have somebody who has an organization," said Walker, a Republican who has endorsed Cruz.
For her part, Clinton faces a tight race with Bernie Sanders in Tuesday's Democratic primary in Wisconsin. A Sanders victory would position the senator from Vermont to make a serious run at embarrassing Clinton on her home turf in the New York primary on April 19.
But it's Cruz's effort to knock Trump off stride that has dominated the Wisconsin contest. On Sunday, Cruz cast himself as an unyielding conservative purist as he campaigned with Walker in Green Bay, Wausau and Eau Claire.
"Let me be very clear: I will not compromise away your religious liberty," Cruz told a crowd of hundreds at a hotel in Green Bay. "I will not compromise away your 2nd Amendment rights to keep and bear arms."
For Republicans to nominate Trump "would be a train wreck, and that's not fair to train wrecks," Cruz told his supporters, who broke into chants of "Dump Trump!"
Walker's support is one of Cruz's biggest assets in Wisconsin. The governor survived a 2012 recall election after he curtailed collective bargaining rights for public workers. Republicans in the suburbs of Milwaukee were a bulwark for Walker, as they are likely to be for Cruz.
"The state has had political leadership who have been openly opposed to Trump all year and … sent a consistent signal to voters not to go with Trump," said pollster Charles Franklin of Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee.
Trump has kept Republicans on edge by playing coy with the idea of running as an independent if he is denied the party's nomination. Pressed on the issue on Sunday, he told Fox News, "I'm going have to see how I was treated. It's very simple."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the party would be a fair arbiter and respect "the vote of the voters and the delegates."
That left open the possibility of Trump winning the popular vote in GOP contests nationwide, but losing the nomination if GOP insiders give it to someone else.
In Wisconsin, Trump's recent troubles have eased Cruz's path. Florida police charged Trump's campaign manager with battery last week on allegations that he grabbed and bruised the arm of a female reporter. Trump defended his aide and attacked the journalist's credibility.
Trump also drew criticism for posting an unflattering photo of Cruz's wife, Heidi, on Twitter next to a picture of his own wife, Melania, a former model. It was a retweet from a person who wrote, "A picture is worth a thousand words."
Trump set off another uproar by saying that if abortions are outlawed, women should be punished for having them, before backtracking and saying only doctors should be sanctioned.
A Marquette University Law School poll released last week found Cruz running 10 percentage points ahead of Trump among likely voters in the Wisconsin primary and 15 points ahead among women.
Sarah Palin, one of Trump's most prominent female supporters, campaigned for him across the state but was poorly received Friday at a Milwaukee GOP dinner. The crowd chuckled when she said "only Trump talks rationally" about national security.
In TV advertising, Trump has emphasized his plans to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and stop immigrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
At rallies, he has tried pandering. Trump told a crowd here in Rothschild how much he liked the Wausau windows he put in his Wall Street high-rise. "We have no leaks," he said. (Days before he lost the Iowa caucuses to Cruz, Trump marveled at the quality of his Pella windows during a stop in Pella, Iowa.)
Trump has also played up his role as an outsider, vowing to shatter what he called the corrupt culture of Washington — a fine idea to motorcycle-parts salesman Dave Soika of Nekoosa, Wis.
"I want to see heads roll," Soika, 57, said after applauding Trump at the rally, held in the same expo center as the bear hunters' conclave.
A few hours later in Eau Claire, Trump told supporters that the party's delegate system was "crooked as hell." After winning the Louisiana primary, Trump said, he walked away with fewer delegates than Cruz because of the senator's ties with state party leaders.
Trump dispatched former rival Ben Carson to a state GOP gathering in Fargo on Saturday to sway North Dakota's selection of 28 delegates. While Trump stayed in Wisconsin, Cruz dashed to Fargo to make a personal appearance.
Trouble also loomed for Trump in Tennessee. He won the primary, but his team was scrambling to stop state party leaders at a weekend meeting from choosing delegates who might not be loyal to him in Cleveland if he falls short of a majority on the first ballot.
Trump currently has 736 delegates, followed by Cruz with 463 and John Kasich with 143.
In Milwaukee on Sunday, Trump called on Kasich to drop out of the race because it's mathematically impossible for the Ohio governor to win a delegate majority before the convention.
"He's taking my votes," Trump said.
Kasich, who has won only his home state but hopes delegates will give him the nomination in a contested convention, brushed Trump off, telling him on Twitter, "That's not how our republic works, Donald."
Finnegan reported from Rothschild and Megerian from Green Bay. Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
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