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Wisconsin Race Tests Impact of GOP Campaign's Latest Ugly Turn

The GOP race heads to Wisconsin this week, with Donald Trump looking to maintain his winning pace and his exasperated opponents trying to stop him.
Image:  Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump
A combination photo of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks onMarch 23, 2016, in Pewaukee, Wis. (L) and Republican presidential hopeful Donald J. Trump speaks Palm Beach, Florida, on March 11.Morry Gash/Cristobal Herrera / AP/EPA

The Republican race will shamble into Wisconsin this week, with Donald Trump looking to maintain his winning pace and his increasingly exasperated opponents trying to slow him down.

After spending a few days off the trail, Trump will appear in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville for a rally on Tuesday. Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who have already campaigned in the state, will hold events throughout the week.

Polls show the April 5 primary, which awards most of its 42 delegates by congressional district, is highly competitive between Trump and Cruz with Kasich not far behind. There are no other contests until April 19 in New York, making it an important heat check for all three candidates.

Trump has few prominent supporters in Wisconsin and talk radio hosts, normally a key ally, skew against him, giving his critics hope that the state’s voters might reject him.

On Monday, Trump called in for an interview with radio host Charlie Sykes, a frequent Trump critic who asked him whether he was alienating Wisconsin voters who ”value civility and decency.”

“Women are just gonna have to see what I’ve done,” Trump told Sykes after being played an ad highlighting his long history of misogynist rhetoric. ”I’ve hired tremendous numbers of women. Women are in the highest executive positions. I pay women, in many cases, more then I pay men, which is more than most people can say.”

Like many state contests before it, Wisconsin offers another chance to test whether Trump’s latest antics are costing him votes. This time the question is whether Trump’s decision to attack his opponent’s spouse, including her physical appearance, is a bridge too low for GOP voters.

In the last few days, Trump has threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi Cruz, retweeted an unflattering of her, and a spokeswoman targeted her over her job at Goldman Sachs and work for the George W. Bush administration. Cruz responded by calling Trump a “sniveling coward” and has hedged on whether or not he can still support him if he wins the nomination.

Trump justified the offensive as a response to an ad by a small super PAC featuring a nude fashion photo of his own wife, Melania Trump, but it would be illegal for Cruz’s campaign to coordinate with the group and there’s no evidence at all that they did. Trump nonetheless repeated his assertion in Skyes’ show on Monday that Cruz “totally knew about it.”

At the same time, Cruz has accused Trump and his “henchmen” of planting a shoddily sourced National Enquirer article that cited a rumor Cruz cheated on his wife that the senator has dismissed as “garbage.” Trump denied the charge, but mischievously praised the outlet’s accuracy, and the Enquirer story quoted former Trump adviser Roger Stone playing up the infidelity rumors.

The personal back-and-forth has distracted from Trump’s foreign policy rollout, which included the announcement of his first-ever list of advisers as well as in-depth interviews with the Washington Post and New York Times.

Trump has called for scaling back American participation in NATO and suggested he’s open to allowing Pacific allies Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent against China rather than rely on American support. In the Times interview, he defended his past calls to annex oil fields in Iraq and seize their profits, but said America must now “destroy the oil” to prevent Islamic State fighters from using it.

Cruz has little hope of catching up to Trump before the Republican convention, however, while Kasich has none. Republican strategists are split over whether his ongoing presence hurts the anti-Trump cause by preventing Cruz from consolidating support or helps it by denying Trump delegates in states more favorable to Kasich.

The campaign is increasingly turning to a behind-the-scenes war to secure support from delegates in anticipation of a contested convention in which Trump falls short of the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

Whatever the effect on the Republican race, Trump’s act is wearing thin with the broader public. A raft of recent polls show his popularity hitting new lows, especially with women, and several indicate Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders hold double-digit leads in a general election match-up.