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Cruz Win in Wisconsin Loosens Trump's Grip on Nomination

"Tonight is a turning point," Cruz told supporters, saying that the win in Wisconsin demonstrates "we have a choice."

Donald Trump’s path to the GOP presidential nomination got a little narrower on Tuesday as Sen. Ted Cruz handily defeated the businessman in Wisconsin.

"Tonight is a turning point," Cruz told supporters. "It is a rallying cry. It is a call from the hard-working men and women of Wisconsin to the people of America: We have a choice."

At 1:15 a.m. ET on Wednesday, NBC News reported that Cruz won 33 of the state’s 42 delegates, with Trump taking three delegates. Two districts had yet to be allocated.

The difference matters because Trump’s margin of error to win the nomination is getting extremely small. Each candidate needs 1,237 delegates to clinch it before the convention in July and it’s still plausible Trump gets there.

Anything short of that, however, and Cruz becomes the favorite to win at the convention, at which the complicated state-by-state delegate selection process means many of Trump’s delegates are unlikely to support him past the first ballot.

Betting markets now give Trump less than a 50 percent chance of carrying the party standard into the general election, mainly due to his expected weakness in a contested convention.

Early Wednesday, NBC's delegate count had Trump with 753, Cruz at 514 and Ohio Gov. John Kasich at 143.

Cruz used his remarks in Wisconsin to prepare supporters for a long fight that would unlikely be settled before July.

"Either before Cleveland or at the convention in Cleveland, together we will win a majority of the delegates and together we will beat Hillary Clinton in November," Cruz said.

Trump, by contrast, warned of a shadowy conspiracy by unnamed opponents within the party to derail his campaign at the convention.

"Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet — he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump," the Trump campaign said in a statement responding to the Wisconsin results.

In the same statement, the campaign accused Cruz, without any evidence, of illegally coordinating with super PACs opposed to Trump.

A major question now is whether Wisconsin, which some analysts saw as a weak state for Trump to begin with, was a predictable bump in the road for the front-runner or a sign of things to come. The race turns to the Northeast and Trump’s home state of New York on April 19, where recent polling shows him with a massive lead, while Cruz’s best natural states have mostly already voted.

Related: Obama Says Cruz’s Proposals Just as ‘Draconian’ as Trump’s

In the meantime, there was plenty for Cruz to like in the exit polls on Tuesday night. He performed unusually well with groups where Trump has often dominated, namely voters without a college degree (winning 48 percent to Trump’s 38 percent) and non-evangelical voters (43 percent to Trump’s 35 percent).

In another encouraging sign for Cruz, Kasich won no delegates. Cruz has called on Kasich to drop out for weeks, out of fear he’ll divide the anti-Trump vote, especially in upcoming states in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. Kasich’s weak showing in Wisconsin offered hope that he might fade on his own.

After weeks of brutal press about Trump’s attacks on Cruz’s wife, his flip flop on "punishment" for women who seek an abortion and his campaign manager’s arrest for alleged battery against a female reporter, the results showed almost no noticeable gender gap. Cruz won men 48-35 over Trump and women 49-34.

It was a stark contrast to general election polling, where Trump’s negatives with women are hitting catastrophic levels relative to his support from men.

For Republicans trying to build to winning national coalition with a clear governing agenda, the exit polls once again showed the deep divisions that will be difficult to reconcile regardless of who wins the nomination.

If Trump secures it, 19 percent of Wisconsin voters said they would vote for a third party candidate, 10 percent said they would vote for Hillary Clinton, and 8 percent said they would not vote.

The numbers were similar when asked if Cruz won the nomination: 18 percent of voters Tuesday said they would go third party, 6 percent said they would vote for Clinton and 6 percent said they would stay home.

A whopping 58 percent of voters in the GOP primary said they would be "concerned" or "scared" if Trump won the presidency. The distrust was mutual: 37 percent said the same of Cruz and 47 percent of Kasich.

One thing that’s clear: Republican leaders will face a skeptical audience as they try to smooth things over come convention time — 52 percent of all voters in Tuesday’s primary said they felt "betrayed" by GOP politicians.