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Politics

Donald Trump seizes on an old target in Wisconsin: Scott Walker

Donald Trump

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump speaks at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., on Wednesday.

(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Donald Trump was merciless Wednesday in his portrayal of how poorly Wisconsin has fared under its Republican governor, Scott Walker.

China and Mexico have siphoned jobs away, the state’s fiscal condition has deteriorated amid soaring debt, and immigrants in the country illegally are burdening Wisconsin taxpayers, Trump glumly informed a St. Norbert College audience outside Green Bay.

“Wisconsin’s not doing well,” he said.

It was an unlikely approach for Trump to take just as Marquette Law School was releasing a poll that found 80% of likely voters in Wisconsin’s Republican presidential primary on Tuesday approve of Walker’s job performance.

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“Seems an odd strategy,” Marquette pollster Charles Franklin said.

Trump’s unconventional effort, including some well-worn Democratic attack lines on Walker, underscored the uphill battle he faces to win Wisconsin in his drive to get the 1,237 delegates he needs to capture the Republican presidential nomination without a brutal fight in July at the party’s national convention in Cleveland.

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Arrayed against him here is the formidable Republican machine that Walker used to win two terms as governor and to beat back a 2012 recall attempt by organized labor after he enacted measures that curbed unions’ collective bargaining powers in Wisconsin.

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This week, Walker endorsed Trump’s chief rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, hence Trump’s renewal of the scathing attacks he first unleashed when the Wisconsin governor was also competing for the GOP presidential nomination last year.

“I wouldn’t do this, except that he endorsed this guy Cruz, and Cruz would be a terrible president,” Trump told the crowd in a theater at St. Norbert College.

For good measure, Trump hurled a few personal insults Walker’s way, poking fun at his motorcycle jackets and rides on a Harley-Davidson.

“The bikers love Trump,” he said. “I’m not a huge biker, I have to be honest with you, OK? I always liked the limo better.”

Trump recalled Walker visiting him at his Manhattan office and giving him a plaque to show gratitude for giving him at least $50,000 in campaign contributions.

“We’re trying to find it; it’s on the bottom of a pile of plaques,” he said dismissively.

The Marquette survey found Cruz winning the support of 40% of likely Wisconsin GOP primary voters, followed by Trump at 30%, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich at 21%. Trump’s weakest region was the Milwaukee area; the city’s suburbs are Walker’s biggest stronghold.

When Walker announced his Cruz endorsement in an interview with influential conservative radio host Charlie Sykes this week, he declined to talk about Trump. But the message was clear simply by Walker’s choice of announcement venue: Sykes has used his platform to criticize Trump, most notably during an interview with the New York real estate mogul on Monday during which it became clear Trump was unaware that Sykes was a part of the efforts to keep the nomination from his grasp.

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Walker representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Cruz has run as a conservative purist willing to take on his party’s establishment, an image Trump has sought to shatter by citing Walker’s support of the Texas senator.

Cruz has also cast himself as a more consistent conservative on social issues. Our Principles PAC, an anti-Trump group funded by major GOP donors, is echoing that pitch in television and radio advertising in Wisconsin that casts Trump as liberal on abortion, guns and other issues.

In that context, Trump tried to reassure conservatives during an MSNBC interview Wednesday that he was “pro-life.” Asked by anchor Chris Matthews how he would ban abortion, Trump said he would “go back to a position like they had where people will perhaps go to illegal places.”

He went on to say “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who would have abortions under such a ban. But after an uproar from all sides -- not only abortion rights advocates but also antiabortion groups, as well as Kasich and Cruz -- Trump, who used to describe himself as pro-choice, -- backtracked. In a statement, he said only doctors and others who perform abortions should be held legally responsible, not women who undergo the procedure.

Further complicating Trump’s campaigning in Wisconsin is the battery charge that Florida police filed Tuesday against his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. He’s accused of grabbing a reporter’s arm and bruising her as she tried to interview Trump after a March 8 news conference at one of his golf resorts.

Lewandowski had denied touching the reporter, Michelle Fields, but video released by Jupiter, Fla., police shows him yanking her away from Trump. He is contesting the battery charge.

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At each of his Wisconsin campaign stops, Trump has defended Lewandowski and touted his ongoing support of his campaign manager as a sign of his own loyalty. While rivals suggested they would have fired Lewandowski, Trump has instead attacked the credibility of Fields. At St. Norbert, he asked the crowd, “Did anybody think it was horrible thing, what happened?”

“No,” several people called out.

“I don’t get it,” Trump said. “We have people whose heads are being chopped off because they’re Christian, and for other reasons, in Syria … and then you have Ted Cruz [saying], ‘He should be fired.’ I say, ‘Why?’ I don’t do that. I’m loyal. He did a good job.”

Twitter: @finneganLAT

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