Sen. Ted Cruz enters Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary looking to reset the GOP presidential race, with his team insisting a win there will prove he’s consolidating the Republicans desperate to stop Donald Trump.
But the rest of the map this month appears to favor Mr. Trump as the race moves east to his home state of New York and then expands in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.
That makes Wisconsin critical for Mr. Cruz, who argues he alone can stop Mr. Trump from claiming the nomination at the July convention, and who says a strong showing Tuesday will convince anti-Trump forces in future states to coalesce.
“Cruz needs to win Wisconsin to show that the tide has turned,” said Rick Tyler, who served as Mr. Cruz’s spokesman before resigning in February. “If he doesn’t, it becomes increasingly hard for him to stop Trump.”
Wisconsin’s vote comes at the end of a hard week for Mr. Trump, which saw his campaign manager charged with simple battery and saw the candidate himself stumble over critical conservative orthodoxy, including abortion.
There was more bad news out of North Dakota, where Mr. Cruz claimed an 18-delegate victory at the GOP’s state convention, denying Mr. Trump reinforcements he could have used.
Aware of what’s riding on the state, Mr. Trump has exerted himself, holding multiple rallies per day and blanketing the media with appearances.
“If we do well here, folks, it’s over,” Mr. Trump said at a rally Monday, according to Reuters. “This could be the real beginning. If it’s not, I think we get there anyway, and I’m pretty sure we [will] get there anyway.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Cruz insisted he’s the only person capable of stopping Mr. Trump, and discounted the idea that party leaders may try to find another anti-Trump candidate at the convention this summer.
“You know this fevered pipe dream of Washington [that] at the convention they will parachute in some white knight who will save the Washington establishment — it is nothing less than a pipe dream. It ain’t gonna happen,” Mr. Cruz told reporters in Wisconsin.
With all the effort both men have put into Wisconsin, the stakes have been raised, according to Chris Borick, political science professor at the Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, who said a Trump loss there could affect contests in states that were expected to be fertile ground for Mr. Trump.
“I think Wisconsin, because it has been the only show in town for a while, will have more of an effect than any individual primary right now,” Mr. Borick said. “If Trump loses in Wisconsin, and fairly solidly in terms of the margin, it certainly is going to give a spark to those opposing him, and that spark can carry over into some of the other states like Pennsylvania.”
Should his Northeast firewall hold, however, Mr. Trump could quickly overcome a Wisconsin setback.
“The month of April should be the month of Trump, and nothing cures bad news like winning,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on John McCain’s 2008 campaign.
“If Trump ultimately loses the nomination, he will look back at this week as the turning point of when the bottom started to drop out, and frankly, he will have no one to blame except himself,” Mr. O’Connell said. “But he can right the ship if he pretty much bosses the month of April outside of Wisconsin.”
Polls show the businessman is running strong ahead of the April 19 New York primary, where he has a shot at winning all of the state’s 95 delegates.
He also appears to be well positioned ahead of the April 26 contests in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, where 200-plus bound delegates are up for grabs.
“If Trump stumbles considerably in Wisconsin, it will be tough for him to get a majority of delegates before the convention, but no one else will be closer,” said Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan group that tracks elections.
Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report, meanwhile, said that he remains a Trump skeptic, and said it is looking increasingly like the race is headed toward a contested convention.
“This race has boiled down to a referendum on Donald Trump, not a contest between two or three candidates,” Mr. Cook said. “To date Trump has won only 37 percent of the popular vote, and I don’t see that percentage expanding as he becomes an even more polarizing figure.”