MILWAUKEE — Republican Ted Cruz and Democrat Bernie Sanders are angling for victories in Tuesday's Wisconsin presidential primaries that could give their campaigns a needed boost, but still leave them with mathematically challenging paths to their parties' nominations.
While Sanders remains a force in the Democratic primary, a win over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin would do little to significantly cut into her lead in delegates that will decide the party's nomination. The stakes are higher for Cruz, who trails Donald Trump in the GOP race and sees Wisconsin as a crucial state in his effort to push the party toward a convention fight.
"We are seeing victory after victory after victory in the grassroots," Cruz said during a campaign stop Monday. "What we are seeing in Wisconsin is the unity of the Republican Party manifesting."
With the White House and control of Congress at stake in November, leaders of both parties are eager to turn their attention toward the general election. Clinton would enter the fall campaign saddled with persistent questions about her honesty and trustworthiness, but also with a significant demographic advantage. It's an edge Democrats believe would be magnified in a race against Trump, who has made controversial comments about immigrants and women.
For Trump, the long lead-up to Wisconsin's contest has included one of the worst stretches of his candidacy. He was embroiled in a spat involving Cruz's wife, which he now says he regrets, was sidetracked by his campaign manager's legal problems after an altercation with a female reporter, and stumbled awkwardly in comments about abortion.
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 1,237 delegates needed to do so before the GOP gathers in Cleveland.
Cruz headed into Tuesday's contest with the backing of much of the state's Republican leaders, including Gov. Scott Walker, but Trump made a spirited final push in the state and predicted a "really, really big victory."
"If we do well here, it's over," he said. "If we don't win here, it's not over."
Complicating the primary landscape for both Cruz and Trump is the continuing candidacy of John Kasich. The Ohio governor's only victory has come in his home state, but he's still picking up delegates that would otherwise help Trump inch closer to the nomination or help Cruz catch up.
Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with the governor and has joined Cruz in calling for Kasich to end his campaign. Kasich cast Trump's focus on him as a sign that he's best positioned to win over the businessman's supporters.
"They're not really his people," Kasich said. "They're Americans who are worried about, they're really most worried about their kids, are their kids going to have a good life?"
If Cruz wins all of Wisconsin's 42 delegates, Trump would need to win 57 percent of those remaining to clinch the GOP nomination before the convention. So far, Trump has won 48 percent of the delegates awarded.
To win a prolonged convention fight, a candidate would need support from the individuals selected as delegates. The process of selecting those delegates is tedious, and will test the mettle of Trump's slim campaign operation.
Cruz prevailed in an early organizational test in North Dakota, scooping up endorsements from delegates who were selected at the party's state convention over the weekend. While all 28 of the state's delegates go to the national convention as free agents, 10 said in interviews that they were committed to Cruz. None has so far endorsed Trump.
Among Democrats, Clinton has 1,243 delegates to Sanders' 980 based on primaries and caucuses. When including superdelegates, or party officials who can back any candidate, Clinton holds an even wider lead — 1,712 to Sanders' 1,011. It takes 2,383 delegates to win the Democratic nomination.
Sanders would need to win 67 percent of the remaining delegates and uncommitted superdelegates to catch up to Clinton. So far, he's only winning 37 percent.
Even if Sanders wins in Wisconsin, he's unlikely to gain much ground. Because Democrats award delegates proportionally, a narrow victory by either candidate on Tuesday would mean that both Sanders and Clinton would get a similar number of delegates.
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Jonathan Lemire, Hope Yen and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.