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Cruz emboldened, but needs a near miracle to catch Trump

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz (left) greeted former Florida governor Jeb Bush before the start of a debate last December. Bush Wednesday gave his backing to Cruz in a move cast by many as a step designed to hurt Donald Trump more than help the unpopular Texas senator.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz (left) greeted former Florida governor Jeb Bush before the start of a debate last December. Bush Wednesday gave his backing to Cruz in a move cast by many as a step designed to hurt Donald Trump more than help the unpopular Texas senator.SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

WAUWATOSA, Wis. — While Ted Cruz decried ‘‘gutter politics’’ against him, former Republican presidential contenders gave him a boost Wednesday, casting the Texas senator as the party’s last best chance to stop Donald Trump.

The support from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida governor Jeb Bush followed split decisions in primaries for both Democrats and Republicans Tuesday. Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton won the biggest prize, Arizona, while Utah went to Cruz and Senator Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator also won the Idaho caucuses.

Now, the campaign shifts to a Midwestern battleground.

Ahead of Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, Walker, while not formally endorsing Cruz, declared that only the Texan can catch Trump. Walker dropped out last year.

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Bush’s endorsement was cast by many as a step designed to hurt Trump more than help the unpopular Texas senator.

‘‘For the sake of our party and country, we must move to overcome the divisiveness and vulgarity Donald Trump has brought into the political arena,’’ said Bush, who was knocked out of the contest last month. ‘‘To win, Republicans need to make this election about proposing solutions to the many challenges we face, and I believe that we should vote for Ted as he will do just that.’’

Indeed, as Clinton addressed rising national security concerns, the Republican contest was hit again by personal insults, this time involving the candidates’ families. Cruz slammed Trump for making a vague threat on Twitter the night before to ‘‘spill the beans’’ on Cruz’s wife. ‘‘Gutter politics,’’ Cruz said.

Trump’s warning that he would disclose something about Heidi Cruz came in response to an ad by an outside political group that featured a provocative photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, when she was a model and before they were married. Trump misidentified the Cruz campaign as the source of the ad.

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Heidi Cruz addressed the situation during an appearance outside Milwaukee. ‘‘The things that Donald Trump says are not based in reality,’’ she said.

Despite modest signs of strength, the first-term Texas senator needs a near miracle to catch Trump. The delegate math after Tuesday’s elections laid bare the challenge: Cruz needs to win 83 percent of the remaining delegates to overtake the front-runner. And further complicating Cruz’s path, Ohio Governor John Kasich vowed to stay in the race at least until the next primary.

‘‘There is zero chance that we would drop out before Wisconsin. And there’d be no reason for us to,’’ Kasich told reporters as he campaigned in the state, acknowledging his only hope to secure the nomination lies at a contested convention this summer in Cleveland.

Kasich did not earn a single delegate Tuesday but suggested he would do ‘‘fine’’ in Wisconsin’s primary and excel in late-April elections across the East.

Things were less contentious on the Democratic side.

With her win in Arizona, Clinton maintained a lopsided advantage over Sanders.

In a foreign policy speech at Stanford University, she instead trained her sights on the Republican candidates. She ridiculed the foreign policy prescriptions of Trump and Cruz, calling them “reckless actions” that would alienate America’s closest allies, demonize Muslims, and empower Russia.

“If Mr. Trump gets his way, it will be like Christmas in the Kremlin,” Clinton said. “It will make America less safe and the world more dangerous.”

The speech was written hurriedly after Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Belgium refocused the presidential campaign from domestic issues like income inequality to the threat of global terrorism. With a firm lead in the race for delegates needed to capture the Democratic nomination, Clinton seemed eager to turn to national security to launch her sharpest attacks yet on Trump and Cruz.

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Yet in her own policy prescriptions — which included an “intelligence surge” to collect more data on the Islamic State, partnerships with Silicon Valley firms that have been suspicious of Washington, and beefing up security on soft targets like airport check-in areas — Clinton resisted calls to distance herself from the Obama administration’s actions and instead called for an acceleration of the approaches that are already underway.

That reflected how Clinton is trying to appear muscular in the fight against terrorism while being cautious not to differentiate herself from her former boss, who remains widely popular among Democrats. Rather than arguing for major policy changes, she advocated moving faster and more dexterously.

Clinton’s remarks tilted heavily to pointed words for Trump and Cruz, rather than new policy solutions.

“It would be a serious mistake to stumble into another costly ground war in the Middle East,” she said, though both men have hedged on whether they would argue for sending US troops. “If we’ve learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan it’s that people and nations have to secure their own communities.”

Then she leapt on Cruz’s comment, made several months ago, that he would “carpet bomb” the Islamic State group. “Proposing that doesn’t make you sound tough,” she said, “it makes you sound like you’re in over your head.”

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That line got to the core of her argument: that as a former secretary of state, she has dealt with such crises before and knows the importance of steadiness.

Trump and Cruz have called that a weakness.


Material from The New York Times was used in this report.