WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style, the relentless attacks by his GOP enemies, and increasingly skeptical voters in the upcoming primary state of Wisconsin are conspiring to slow the front-runner at a crucial moment in the Republican presidential primary contest.
Trump proved his popularity was real in February and then built a strong delegate lead in March. But now as April begins, his fortunes appear to be slipping. He is confronting cracks in his campaign — much of it damage of his own doing in the past week — and is facing an escalation of efforts by establishment Republicans and rivals Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich to deny him the nomination.
In a move that seemed to undercut Trump, the Republican National Committee took the unusual step Thursday of prominently announcing rules for a contested nominating convention in Cleveland on its website. A special web page titled “Convention Facts’’ outlines what could happen if Trump fails to reach the 1,237 delegates required to win in July.
“If that is the case, we will have an open and transparent convention where delegates – empowered and selected by the grassroots – will elect the nominee for our party,’’ it said.
Trump quietly met in a previously unannounced session in Washington with GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, who is from Wisconsin. The meeting was closed to the press, but afterwards Trump tweeted that he was “looking forward to bringing the party together — and it will happen!”
The move by the RNC followed a week of bad news for the brash New York real estate mogul. He stuck by his campaign manager after the adviser was charged with battery in Florida for yanking the arm of a female reporter. Then Trump flip-flopped on abortion, first saying that women should be punished for obtaining illegal abortions, then, after an uproar, recanting the statement.
Trump also backed off a pledge he made to support the GOP nominee no matter who wins, saying he has been treated unfairly by the party. Cruz and Kasich also rescinded their pledges, adding to the sense of disarray in the party’s nominating process.
Trump has fallen behind Cruz in the polls in Wisconsin ahead of Tuesday’s primary. Republican state leaders including Governor Scott Walker, who endorsed Cruz, are united against Trump in hopes of stemming his delegate count. Kasich trails far behind in the polls and has only won his home state of Ohio.
Even though only 42 delegates are at stake, the Badger State looms large by virtue of its place on the calendar; the only Republican primary for a four-week stretch from mid-March to April 19, Wisconsin has the ability to set the narrative of the campaign for two more weeks.
“I would expect Cruz to win the primary unless something dramatic happens the next few days,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin. “He’s got the wind at his back and a lot of the establishment behind him.’’
Trump attacked Walker after the governor’s endorsement of Cruz, blaming him for job losses and berating him for not raising taxes.
“There’s a $2.2 billion deficit and the schools were going begging and everything was going begging because he didn’t want to raise taxes ’cause he was going to run for president,” Trump said during a talk radio interview. “So instead of raising taxes, he cut back on schools, he cut back on highways, he cut back on a lot of things.”
His attack on the governor, popular among conservatives, backfired: Republican state leaders, who have spent the last five years defending Walker’s policies against liberal attacks, rallied around Cruz.
“There’s no doubt he’s tanking pretty hard in Wisconsin,” said state representative Jim Steineke, the Republican majority leader who is backing Cruz. “I think he’s finally been unmasked for who he really is, a fairly liberal politician.”
The state’s influential talk radio hosts, too, have coalesced around Cruz. Charlie Sykes, a Milwaukee political analyst and conservative radio host, called Trump’s decision to attack Walker “mind-bogglingly stupid.”
“This is a Republican primary and he was attacking him for not raising taxes,” Sykes said in an interview with the Globe. “These are battle-tested voters. To come into Wisconsin and basically attack Walker from the left is an extraordinarily bad decision by Trump. He seems almost tone deaf to the political culture and landscape of Wisconsin.”
On Thursday the Cruz campaign launched a television ad featuring Walker’s endorsement. Trump has also been confronted with attack ads, funded by super PACs, that question his conservatism and highlight his questionable business dealings and his verbal attacks on women. Trump’s disapproval ratings are soaring nationwide amid the attacks, which have aired in states across the country.
Trump held his first rally in Wisconsin on Tuesday in Janesville, Paul Ryan’s hometown, where a 15-year-old girl was pepper-sprayed during a fight outside the venue. Ryan, the House speaker and 2012 nominee for vice president, has not endorsed a candidate but has denounced the harshness and debasing quality of the rhetoric in the primaries.
Vicki McKenna, another conservative radio host, said the violent tenor of Trump’s rallies is problematic for voters.
“We’ve had recalls, protests, tens of thousands of people in our state nose to nose, and nobody wants to relive that,” McKenna said. “You see that kind of behavior at his rallies and you think, ‘nah, we’ve moved on beyond that here.’”
A Marquette Law School poll this week shows Trump trailing Cruz by 10 points. Wisconsin’s primary is “winner-take-most,” with 42 delegates up for grabs. Eighteen delegates must vote for whoever wins the state; 24 congressional delegates are obliged to whoever wins their district.
The state is a must-win for Cruz. The Texas senator will need a strong victory heading next to Trump’s home state of New York.
“There are some opportunities for Cruz, but he’s going to need Wisconsin to be the turning point psychologically,” said Burden, the political science professor.
Cruz, with 463 delegates, trails Trump by 273 delegates. He is nearly locked out mathematically from winning the nomination on primary delegates, but he could be credited with denying Trump the nomination if he shows continued strength. Trump is still 501 short of securing the necessary delegates.
The fallout over Trump’s shifting positions on abortion continued Thursday. Kasich, in a New York press conference, said that Trump is “clearly not prepared to be president” because of his tendency to become “unmoored” when questioned about his ever-changing positions. Referring to Trump’s reversal over his abortion comments, Kasich said, presidents ‘‘don’t get do-overs.’’
The Wisconsin primary is also pivotal for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who is looking to capitalize on the momentum gained by sweeping last week’s primaries in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington.
Sanders is leading in Wisconsin polls, but he still trails far behind Hillary Clinton in delegates. Democrats need to amass 2,383 delegates to win the nomination. Sanders so far has 1,011, compared to Clinton’s 1,712.