Audrey Khairghadam’s zeal for the Republican presidential front-runner faded away sometime between the moment Donald Trump strolled on stage to the ‘90s techno anthem “Are You Ready for This?” and, an hour later, when he left.
The 35-year-old service industry business owner was so excited to see Trump’s first rally in Wisconsin on Tuesday that she jogged five miles from her house to get to the event eight hours early. But after watching from her second-row seat, she left disappointed. True to form, Trump delivered a barrage of attacks on rivals — including those no longer in the race — but the Janesville resident wanted specifics on how he’d shake up Washington.
“I expected to hear a lot more detail about what he was going to do for our country, instead of just, ‘Trust me,’” Khairghadam said, adding that she was so deflated she probably wouldn’t vote. “Trust isn’t something any of us have right now.”
Just days before Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, voters like Khairghadam are threatening to shake up the presidential nominating race in both parties. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, and Trump are trailing their rivals in the Midwestern state, according to a poll released Wednesday from Marquette University.
Trump was trailing in the poll, taken March 24-28, to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, 40 percent to 30 percent. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was third, with 21 percent. On the Democratic side, Clinton fell behind Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 49 percent to 45 percent.
The state’s respective primaries have taken on a sudden, outsized importance due to the potentially crucial role Wisconsin could play as a battleground for both parties in November. Wisconsin voters have reliably backed Democratic presidential candidates since Republican Ronald Reagan’s last election in 1984. But Trump supporters see a general-election opportunity in the state’s working-class, mostly white population.
There’s also a relative lull in the primary calendar that has helped generate excitement in the Badger State’s contests. There is no other primary election in either party until April 19 in New York.
For Republicans, Wisconsin is a mostly moderate, pro-business state where a majority of the party’s voters live in the state’s urban center: Milwaukee and the surrounding counties. Many Republican officials in this area are backing Cruz.
On the Democratic side, Wisconsin is a state with a heritage of progressive politics. Clinton is expected to perform well in Milwaukee, but the base of the Democratic Party here is more progressive than the Republicans are conservative. Liberal voters handed Barack Obama a victory of 18 percentage points over Clinton in 2008.
Asked during a visit on Monday to a local retail store in Madison, the state capital, about how this time would be different, Clinton smiled, waved, and walked backward — away from reporters and toward the door. “We are working really hard and having a good time doing it,” she said.
For Clinton, a loss would amplify doubts about her appeal in key Midwestern states and her team is downplaying her chances in Wisconsin. They’re also limiting the amount of time that the Clintons are spending there, though as always determined campaigners, they’ve added final visits this weekend. She campaigned in the state on Monday and Tuesday, and will be back in Eau Claire and Milwaukee on Saturday. Former President Bill Clinton will return on Friday.
“There’s a lot of reasons why he’s probably going to be quite competitive there,” Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon said of Sanders during a Tuesday interview on Bloomberg Television’s “With All Due Respect.” “No matter who wins, delegate-wise it will be a wash. It won’t significantly alter the trajectory of the race.”
Even if Sanders wins the Badger State by a substantial margin, “it does not portend necessarily anything with respect to a state like New York or California,” Fallon said. After all, Wisconsin will award its 96 delegates proportionally.
Instead, the campaign is looking ahead to New York, when 291 pledged delegates will be awarded proportionally in a primary where Clinton is trying to run up the score and make significant additions to her delegate lead, something Fallon described as “balancing our priorities in order to win the nomination.”
Clinton released her first ad in New York. The ad doesn’t mention Sanders, and instead focuses on how Trump’s “message of division” won’t resonate in state.
Sanders also took on Trump on Wednesday in Madison, where he drew thousands of people for the second time this week and made reference to his wins in six of the last seven nominating contests. “As some of you may know, our campaign is on a bit of a roll,” Sanders said.
The state capital also hosted Cruz, who held a “celebration of women.” He was joined by his mother, wife, and Carly Fiorina, one of several former Republican presidential candidates who have endorsed him. The event was a not-so-subtle attempt to highlight Trump’s trouble with female voters. Trump was put on the defensive on Tuesday after his campaign manger was charged with simple battery on allegations that he grabbed a female reporter.
On Wednesday, Trump was forced to walk back comments that, if abortion were made illegal, there would “have to be some form of punishment” for women who terminated a pregnancy. That position, which other anti-abortion Republicans haven’t been willing to support, was reversed later when Trump said doctors who perform the procedure should face punishment if it were outlawed, not the women who undergo it.
A Cruz victory in Wisconsin would increase the likelihood that Trump falls short of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination.
“This is such an important state. I would love to win it,” Trump said at rally in Appleton on Wednesday, saying a victory would “absolutely cement” his status as a front-runner.
But a subdued Trump seemed to sense his popularity waning in Wisconsin, as he raised the possibility of loss.
“If we don’t win it, it will be, you know: Keep going, keep going,” Trump said. “We’ll see if we get to that big number.”
Trump said the political class is threatened by his candidacy, and is trying to make sure he loses. “The establishment is trying to take it all away from us,” Trump said. “They’re trying so hard.”
Still, there’s time for Trump in Wisconsin. While Khairghadam said that seeing Trump in person made her less enthusiastic for his candidacy, she wouldn’t rule out supporting the New York businessman.
“If my husband drags me to the voting booth,” Khairghadam said, “I’ll still only vote for Trump.”
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