Billionaire Donald Trump suffered a decisive defeat late Tuesday night, beaten badly in Wisconsin by Texas Senator Ted Cruz in what many Republicans hope may be a turning point in the bizarre race to choose the party's nominee for November's presidential election.
The loss in Wisconsin makes it more difficult – but not impossible – that Mr. Trump will amass the 1,237 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination on the first ballot when the divided party gathers for its convention in Cleveland in July.
Bloodied but unbowed, the bombastic Mr. Trump, 70, lashed out, accusing his Canadian-born rival of being a "worse than a puppet – he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination." In a statement, the bombastic New York property magnate and sometime reality TV star, depicted himself as the victim. "Donald J. Trump withstood the onslaught of the establishment yet again," it said, adding: "Lyin' Ted Cruz had the Governor of Wisconsin, many conservative talk radio show hosts, and the entire party apparatus behind him."
The Wisconsin setback caps the worst week since Mr. Trump's improbable emergence as the frontrunner in the Republican race where once 17 candidates jostled for position. Last week, his campaign manager was charged with battery after an altercation with a reporter, and Mr. Trump managed to offend both sides of the bitter abortion debate with suggestions that women should be punished for terminating pregnancies. His musings about encouraging nations to get their nuclear weapons aroused fears he was unfit to be president.
Mr. Cruz, 45, a Tea Party favourite who infuriated the Republican establishment and most of his fellow senators with his unbending right-wing orthodoxy, has emerged as the main rival to Mr. Trump.
"Tonight is a turning point," he crowed. "I am more and more convinced that our campaign is going to earn the 1,237 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination. Either before Cleveland or at the convention in Cleveland, we will win a majority of the delegates and we will beat Hillary Clinton in November."
But Mr. Cruz faces a tough uphill battle. Mr. Trump should do well in his home state of in New York on April 19 and the mid-Atlantic states that follow. The roller-coaster ride of Republican primaries will continue for two more months until the biggest prize – California – votes on June 7. It may decide whether Republicans are headed for the first contested convention since 1976 and – perhaps – the first convention to go to multiple ballots since 1952.
"We're winning because we're uniting the Republican Party," Mr. Cruz claimed. But he is no less a polarizing figure than Mr. Trump. Meanwhile, Ohio Governor John Kasich, 64, a Republican centrist who trails distantly remains in the race. Both his rivals want him to quit, but Mr. Kasich seems determined to stay until the Cleveland conference, holding himself out as a potential convention compromise.
In Wisconsin, with almost all the votes counted, Mr. Cruz had 48 per cent, Mr. Trump, 35 per cent and Mr. Kasich, 14 per cent.
In the Democratic race, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, 74, won Wisconsin – his sixth victory in the last seven Democratic contests – but the victories have failed to significantly close the big lead held by former First Lady Hillary Clinton, 68.
Ms. Clinton has proven far more attractive in big, diverse states and is expected to extend her lead in New York – her adopted home state – and other primaries later this month.
Mr. Sanders, whose grassroots campaign built on calls for social justice and a tirade of attacks on Wall Street and the hijacking of U.S. politics by big money, has proven a much tougher opponent and much better campaigner than the Clinton camp expected. He still insists he has a path to victory. He beat Ms. Clinton 57-43 per cent in Wisconsin, but even that is far short of the two-thirds majorities he would need to close the delegate gap.
Unless he can manage major upset victories – in New York, for instance, where he was born – the self-described socialist won't be able to overcome Ms. Clinton's commanding lead, not just in pledged delegates but in superdelegates, the party notables, mayors, and members of Congress, who have overwhelmingly lined up behind the establishment candidate.
Ms. Clinton all but ceded Wisconsin – a whiter-than-average state with a huge population of young college students where Mr. Sanders was expected to do well.
"Congrats to Bernie Sanders on winning Wisconsin," Ms. Clinton's camp tweeted, while she spent the evening fundraising with major donors in New York City.
Exit polls in Wisconsin, conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and several television networks, found a majority of Republicans who voted saying they were either concerned about or scared of the risks of a Trump presidency. Yet, nearly 60 per cent of Republican voters there said the party should choose the candidate with the most support in the primaries – currently Mr. Trump – even if he fell short of the 1,237 delegates needed to win outright."