Cruz closes in on Trump as crucial state primary looms
Donald Trump is planning to make his first campaign visit to Wisconsin today, where the upcoming Republican presidential primary could mark a turning point in the unpredictable race.
But rival Ted Cruz has gotten a jump-start on next week's contest, collecting influential endorsements and campaigning in key regions.
A solid Cruz win in Wisconsin would narrow Trump's path to the nomination, put pressure on the billionaire to sweep the remaining winner-take-all primaries this spring and increase the chances of a contested party convention in July.
"The results in Wisconsin will impact significantly the primaries to come," Cruz said after a rally on Friday.
Next Tuesday's contest will be the first primary since the Texas senator began collecting the backing of establishment Republicans, such as former Florida Gov Jeb Bush, who has been adamant about eliminating Trump.
As Cruz campaigned across the state, he was following a winning roadmap drawn by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in 2010 in Wisconsin's rural and working-class midsection, the same demographic that has driven Trump's success thus far.
Trump has slightly fewer than half of the Republican delegates allocated so far, short of the majority needed to clinch the nomination before the party's national convention this summer. Cruz has more than a third of the delegates.
If Cruz wins most of the 42 delegates in Wisconsin, then the remaining winner-take-all contests in Delaware, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey and North Dakota could determine the future of the race.
A solid Cruz win in Wisconsin would likely require Trump to win those five contests to avoid fighting for the nomination at the party's national convention.
Cruz's campaign was airing about $500,000 in advertising over the final two weeks before the primary - a sharp contrast to Trump, who aired no commercials in the state. The anti-tax group Club for Growth announced its plans to spend $1m on pro-Cruz ads, while an anti-Trump group was spending roughly $340,000 in the final two weeks.
The third remaining Republican candidate, Ohio Gov John Kasich, has also visited Wisconsin, but polls show him trailing both Trump and Cruz.
"Ted Cruz has a real opportunity to win the state, in a way that would be pretty resounding," said Mark Graul, an unaffiliated Republican strategist from the state.
There are nonetheless ways that Trump could still be denied the Republican nomination. Firstly, he could lose the delegate lead.
Trump is ahead of Cruz by a little less than 300 delegates. That's a large advantage, but there are still more than 800 bound delegates remaining to be selected, almost all of them in winner-take-all or winner-take-most states.
There isn't enough polling data to indicate what's going to happen in most of these.
And that delegate lead is a little shakier than it might seem.
About 200 delegates are either uncommitted or allocated to candidates who have dropped out of t he race.
Most of them are free to choose, and there's reason to believe that most won't support Trump.
Once they declare, Trump's margin could narrow.
There's an interactive effect, too. If Trump is winning, the free-to-choose delegates will tend to either support him or remain undeclared. If Cruz (or Kasich) starts winning, they'll move in that direction.
If Trump does lose the delegate lead before the convention, it's extremely unlikely that he could recover to win the nomination.
Secondly, he could retain the delegate lead, but fail to reach the 1,237 needed to clinch the nomination.
If Trump doesn't win any of the uncommitted or unbound delegates, he needs to win about 60pc of the remaining bound delegates to get over the top.
He's on pace to fall short by just a few delegates, according to several close observers.
If Trump can't quite reach 1,237 after the July 7 primaries, he will try to get them during the pre-convention period, the six weeks between the final primaries and the convention.