EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on Sunday launched his final push ahead of the crucial primary in Wisconsin, where his supporters are hoping to deliver the most decisive rejection yet of frontrunner Donald Trump.
Back in the Badger State after a brief detour to North Dakota, the Texas senator traversed Wisconsin with a cast of local and national surrogates in tow, few of them mincing words about the state's potential to slow Trump's momentum.
"Here and now is where we dump Trump," Green Bay radio host Jerry Bader said while introducing Cruz at a rally in Green Bay, speaking of Wisconsin as different from other states where Republicans have organized against the billionaire. "We're principled. We have integrity. And we believe in the Constitution."
At Cruz's second of the rally of the day, another Cruz-friendly radio host, Vicki McKenna, eviscerated Trump as having insulted many Wisconsin Republicans with his criticism of the state's economy and its popular steward, Gov. Scott Walker. Trump was mistaken "thinking he could just waltz into our state and put another check in the box," she said, urging Wisconsinites not to "let some clown" diminish Walker's reforms.
In reality, a victory by Cruz here Tuesday could amount to a small setback in Trump's march to the nomination. The state awards 42 delegates, and Cruz currently trails Trump by 273, according to the Associated Press. And two weeks after the Wisconsin primary, the Republican race turns to the East Coast, where Trump is favored in many contests.
Cruz's team is nonetheless bullish about its chances in the Badger State, where the five most recent polls have found him leading Trump by 1 to 10 points. Introducing Cruz in Eau Claire, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah noted that Cruz received 69 percent of the vote last month in the Beehive State caucuses. "I think we can beat that here," Lee told Wisconsinites.
On Sunday, Cruz's campaign said it was firing on all cylinders in Wisconsin but not taking anything for granted.
"Our campaign is all hands in deck in Wisconsin," Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe wrote in an email to supporters, asking if any can still make the trip there to volunteer before Tuesday.
Trump's campaign is not backing down in the face of Cruz's advantage in Wisconsin. The billionaire has kept a full schedule of events in the state, and his campaign is intensifying its criticism of Cruz as complicit in President Barack Obama's trade policies.
"There is no man who has pushed harder to send your jobs overseas than Ted Cruz," Trump adviser Stephen Miller told a crowd of Wisconsinites on Saturday.
In past week, Cruz's campaign has been steadily rolling out endorsements in the state, including a list of clergy and faith leaders on Friday. A day later, Cruz received the endorsement of Reid Ribble, the second Wisconsin congressman to get behind him. Cruz's most prominent endorsement so far, however, was Gov. Scott Walker, who appeared at his first rallies with Cruz on Sunday and is scheduled to continue stumping with the Texas senator Monday.
"Tuesday's going to be a turning point in this election," Walker declared in Green Bay. It was there where Cruz, in an ode to the city's NFL team, conjured the image of a terrified Trump getting sacked by former player Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, another Cruz supporter who spoke at the rally. "I think Donald's hair would stand on end," Cruz predicted.
Unlike the rest of Cruz's surrogates Sunday, however, Walker steered clear of direct criticism of Trump, only alluding to Wisconsin outsiders who have recently used Democratic talking points to assail his economic record. When someone in the audience in Eau Claire shouted, "Dump Trump!", Walker paused his speech to correct the person.
"No, it's not about somebody else," Walker said. "It's about who we're for."
The homestretch in Wisconsin is unfolding as Cruz's campaign begins to take a more offensive posture toward Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the only other GOP candidate left in the race — and someone whom Cruz's team has been reluctant to criticize beyond characterizing him as a spoiler. Cruz's campaign is now airing a TV ad suggesting Kasich gave special treatment to a company that ended up laying off more than 100 Ohioans. "John Kasich: Not for us," a narrator concludes in the 30-second spot aimed at Wisconsinites.
If the candidate himself was shifting more focus to Kasich, it did not show Sunday. The only reference to Kasich came in Green Bay, where state Rep. Andre Jacque, a co-chair of Cruz's campaign in Wisconsin, alluded to another Republican candidate who "took the Medicaid expansion money."
Trump was otherwise exclusively in the crosshairs of Cruz and his surrogates Sunday, who criticized everything from his suggestion Walker should have raised taxes to the billionaire's attacks on Cruz's wife Heidi. After Cruz shared a bowl of onion rings with her daughter in Wausau, local teacher Shantese Wilson explained why she thought Trump is not catching fire in Wisconsin like he has in some many other states that have already voted.
"Wisconsin is a fairly conservative state, and I think when we think of conservative, we don't think of Donald Trump," said Wilson, who plans to vote for Cruz. "He just doesn't fit what we picture as conservative."
Cruz is set to continue a brisk pace of campaigning Monday in Wisconsin. He is scheduled to attend a town hall with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, a regular subject of Trump's ire, in the morning in Madison, then make three stops with Walker throughout the rest of the day in Kenosha, Milwaukee and Waukesha.