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Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — After Donald Trump's toughest stretch of the campaign, he and Ted Cruz made spirited final pitches Monday to Wisconsin voters, who will cast ballots Tuesday in a Republican primary that both consider a key step in the race for president.

After Tuesday, there's a two-week lull before the next important voting, in New York.

Trump is facing pressure on multiple fronts following a difficult week marked by his controversial comments, reversals and rare moments of contrition. While his past remarks on topics like Mexican immigrants have drawn a backlash, even he appeared to recognize the damage caused by a series of missteps in the lead-up to Wisconsin.

Those included re-tweeting an unflattering photo of Cruz's wife and a series of contradictory comments on abortion that managed to draw condemnation from both abortion rights activists and opponents.

While Trump is the only Republican with a realistic path to clinching the nomination ahead of the Republican convention, a big loss in Wisconsin would greatly reduce his chances of reaching the needed 1,237 delegates before then. A big win for Trump would give him more room for error down the stretch.

Friendlier pastures lie ahead in New York and other Northeast states. But for now, he's facing a tough challenge in Cruz, whom polls show with a lead in Wisconsin.

Trump is facing pressure on two fronts.

In Wisconsin, he has been battered by negative ads. The state's top Republican advertiser has been Our Principles PAC, which pumped almost $1.3 million into anti-Trump ads. The Club for Growth, which has endorsed Cruz, is spending $800,000 on ads that promote voting for Cruz — not John Kasich — as the best way to ensure a Trump defeat.

Also, the state's Republican establishment, including Gov. Scott Walker and some of its most influential conservative talk radio hosts, have lined up to support Cruz.

At the same time, Trump's campaign has been outmaneuvered by Cruz in some early states where the campaigns are working to ensure that the delegates who attend the convention this summer are loyal to them. Trump acknowledged his frustrations on CBS Sunday in discussing a meeting with members of the Republican National Committee.

"And I did look at my people. I said, 'Well, wait a minute, folks. You know, we should've maybe done better,'" he said. "Except I also said, 'I won the state.' And I think there's a real legal consequence to winning a state and not getting as many delegates."

The billionaire businessman began his final day of campaigning in LaCrosse, a city of about 50,000 on Wisconsin's western border.

Saturday morning, he had been on the defensive, complaining about the coverage he's received and suggesting that his message wasn't getting through to voters.

But as he's moved from rally to rally in the state — many featuring crowds in the thousands — he's grown more optimistic, moving from thinking he "could surprise" to all but guaranteeing victory.

"I really believe tomorrow we're going to have a very, very big victory," he told the crowd, imploring them to vote.

"If we do well here, folks, it's over. If we don't win here, it's not over, but wouldn't you like to take the credit in Wisconsin?" he asked.

Meanwhile, Cruz's confidence was growing, too. He predicted a "terrific victory" during the taping of a town hall in Madison that was to be broadcast Monday night on Fox News. Cruz also discounted any possibility of someone other than Trump or him winning the nomination.

"This fevered pipe dream of Washington that at the convention they will parachute in some white knight who will save the Washington establishment, it is nothing less than a pipe dream," Cruz told reporters. "It ain't going to happen. If it did, the people would quite rightly revolt."

He got in a dig at Trump, too.

"The last two weeks Donald Trump has gotten his rear end whipped, over and over and over again," Cruz said.

On Monday, the Democratic rivals appealed to union members and showed their next-primary hopes by their locations: Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin, where polls show him ahead, and Hillary Clinton in New York, which votes in two weeks and is a must-win state for her.

At a UAW headquarters in Janesville, Sanders criticized Gov. Walker as being anti-union and said, "In a sense what this campaign is about is building on what the union movement has done." In New York City, Clinton campaigned alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo, praising union-led efforts that helped raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour and predicting that that higher level would "sweep" the nation.

As for Trump's difficult recent stretch, it's not unusual for candidates to go through such periods, and they often rebound better prepared.

President Obama, for instance, was dogged in the 2008 Democratic primaries by controversial comments his pastor had made in church sermons. In a move that foreshadowed how he would respond to difficult moments in his presidency, Obama delivered a well-received speech on race in which he disavowed Pastor Jeremiah Wright's comments but also sought to explain them through the prism of the nation's tortured history on race.

When Wright resurfaced later in the campaign with more questionable comments, Obama moved swiftly to put the controversy to rest, cutting his ties to Wright's Chicago church.

Bauer reported from in Madison, Wisconsin. Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Todd Richmond in Janesville, Wisconsin, Jacob Pearson in New York and Stephen Ohlemacher, Julie Pace and Julie Bykowicz in Washington contributed to this report.