By the time Donald Trump holds his first rally in Wisconsin on Tuesday, Ted Cruz's campaign will have held almost a dozen events in the state.
It's likely no coincidence as the U.S. senator from Texas moves to capitalize on the most precious resource in presidential politics: time. With Trump off the GOP presidential campaign trail for more than a week, his chief opponent has been barnstorming the state — which holds its primary April 5 — hunting for support in its Republican strongholds and pausing only to go home for Easter.
"I think that it’s been extremely helpful to Sen. Cruz," said Andre Jacque, a state representative who co-chairs Cruz's Wisconsin campaign. "I think he’s put in the most effort by far, and it’s going to pay dividends."
Cruz's campaign in the Badger State has taken on a form reminiscent of his efforts ahead of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses: county-by-county organization, a retail-heavy schedule and a volunteer army. Perhaps most strikingly, though, Cruz is using the same argument against Trump that preceded his victory in Iowa, painting the billionaire as a candidate in hiding, scared to face the voters in a state where the two are running neck and neck.
"Donald, why don't you show up and debate like a man?" Cruz said at a rally Monday evening in Rothschild, reiterating his call for Trump to face him one-on-one at a CNN town hall Tuesday in Milwaukee.
Cruz's campaign, scrambling to catch Trump in the delegate hunt, sees the Wisconsin primary as winnable, even with Ohio Gov. John Kasich still siphoning off some of the anti-Trump vote. The two most recent polls have shown Cruz with single-digit leads over Trump, and the latest results from the state's most respected survey, the Maquette Law School Poll, are set to be released Wednesday.
“My gut feeling is it’s a close race and there’s a lot of people who are making up their minds," said Van Mobley, an associate professor of history and economics at Concordia University Wisconsin who supports Trump. "I think Trump’s going to win," Mobley added, pausing. "I wouldn’t want to bet money on it.”
Cruz has spent the past several days traveling the state with a message seemingly designed to cut into Trump's support among blue-collar workers. Campaigning against the backdrop of every-town factories, the Texas senator is touting his flat tax plan more than ever and promising in Trump-like parlance to bring back jobs from Mexico and China.
"He's very good at saying 'jobs have gone overseas,' and he's right," Cruz said of Trump while stumping Friday in Oshkosh. "His idea is put a 45 percent tariff on all imported goods. Now, a tariff is a tax. So he’s saying to everyone here that he’s gonna put a 45 percent tax on you."
"That’s disastrous," Cruz added. "Look, people are struggling already, and the immediate result of that would be people putting reciprocal tariffs on the other end. Last time we did that, it was called Smoot-Hawley, and it helped contribute to the Great Depression.”
Cruz's campaign is bolstering his case with a trio of TV ads aimed at Wisconsinites that portray him as champion of the working class. One, titled "Every Day Fighter," features an auto shop owner contrasting Cruz's vision for the economy with that of Trump, whose "empty promises won't cut it."
The message has largely been overshadowed as Wisconsin plays host to the nastiest chapter of the Republican race yet, one in which Cruz has spent days battling attacks on his wife from Trump. Cruz sought to put the Trump-fueled drama behind him Monday afternoon in Altoona, where he was asked about the latest controversy involving the billionaire: his promise to sue Cruz over a delegate dispute in Louisiana.
"Who cares?" an animated Cruz asked reporters. "Who cares what Donald is tweeting late at night?"
Cruz could not escape the topic while again speaking to the media hours later in Rothschild. Joined by GOP rival-turned-supporter Carly Fiorina, Cruz got testy with a reporter who asked him to "more definitively" deny a National Enquirer story suggesting he has not been faithful to his wife. Before Cruz repeated that the article is "complete garbage," Fiorina interjected with her own questions for reporters, asking, "Why do you all dance to Donald Trump's tune?"
Cruz's prospects in Wisconsin hinge on his ability to emerge as the standard-bearer of the anti-Trump movement. A lot of that sentiment has been stirred by conservative talk radio in the Badger State, which has outsize influence over Republican primary voters there. That was clear Monday, when Trump stumbled through a pair of interviews with pro-Cruz talkers Jerry Bader and Charlie Sykes, apparently caught off guard by their aggressive questioning.
"I'm surprised that a talk show host would be supporting somebody," Trump complained to Bader. "You'd think there'd be a certain impartiality."
Cruz is getting a relatively new assist in his fight against Trump from the Club for the Growth, an anti-Trump group that recently decided to start airing explicitly pro-Cruz ads. Their debut commercial in the genre, part of a more than $1 million buy in Wisconsin, pitches Cruz as the only Republican candidate who can beat Trump, bluntly ruling out Kasich.
Cruz could get another boost against Trump on Tuesday morning, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is scheduled to announce his "formal decision in the Republican presidential primary" on Sykes' show. Walker, who dropped out of the race in September, has strongly suggested he will back Cruz, saying Wednesday the Texas senator is "the only one who's got a chance" to win the nomination besides Trump.
"Really the governor’s endorsement is a formality at this point," Jacque said, calling Walker's recent comments about Cruz a "de facto" endorsement of the Texas senator.
In the meantime, Cruz and his campaign have wasted no opportunity to lavish praise on Walker and the Wisconsin economy, which Trump has previously criticized. Cruz has also spoken highly of Walker's lightning-rod efforts to curtail public-employee union power in 2011, which led to a failed attempt to recall the governor a year later.
"I am a big, big fan of Scott Walker's," Cruz told reporters in Rothschild, skirting a question about whether reporters can expect to see the two campaigning together Tuesday. "When Scott Walker led a fight against the union bosses of the public employee unions, when millions of men and women rallied behind Gov. Walker, it inspired people all over the country. It inspired millions. It inspired me."
"What we need in Washington is more of that same courageous fight for principle that Scott Walker demonstrated here in Wisconsin," Cruz added. "It is that spirit, that fight, that is at the heart of what our campaign is all about."
Cruz is set to take a break from the campaign trail in Wisconsin on Friday, when he heads to Pennsylvania to address a conservative conference in Harrisburg. He won't be gone long, though: By Saturday evening, Cruz is scheduled to be back in the Badger State.