RACINE, Wisconsin (AP) — Donald Trump wants voters to know his message to the disaffected isn’t meant for Republicans alone.
The party’s presidential front-runner told supporters on Saturday that he’s out to bring independents and Democrats behind his cause even though “right now I’m catering to the Republicans.”
Contenders in both parties bid for an edge in Wisconsin’s primaries Tuesday, none more actively than Trump, who’s had a rough week and faces a likely struggle against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the state.
The Republican race is overshadowed by a persistent effort by Trump’s rivals in the campaign and the party to force the nomination fight into the July convention — and by his equivocations on whether he will be loyal to the GOP or bolt for an independent candidacy if he feels mistreated.
In Racine, in the first of his three rallies Saturday, Trump said little to suggest his allegiance with the GOP is cast in stone. He offered the critique that the Republican Party had a “falling-asleep reputation” until his campaign caught fire and brought millions of new voters out to primaries and caucuses.
Trump devoted substantial time to defending and explaining himself after a series of eye-opening statements on foreign policy and convoluted remarks on abortion rights in past days.
He asserted that his comments questioning the value of NATO reflect widely held views, that it is conceivable to think that Japan and South Korea might some day gain nuclear arms and that he was dealing with hypotheticals when he said in the same week that women who have abortions should be punished if the procedure is banned, yet abortion laws should not be changed.
But his mea culpa came off the stage, when he expressed regret that he had retweeted an unflattering photo of rival Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, paired with a glamorous photo of his own wife, Melania, as part of a feud between the two men. “Yeah, it was a mistake,” he told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have sent it.”
Cruz sought favor in North Dakota, which is not holding a primary or caucuses in the 2016 Republican race. He addressed Republicans at a state convention that is selecting delegates who will go to the national convention unbound to any of the presidential candidates.
Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich sent supporters on their behalf to make the case that they should be backed by North Dakota’s delegates at the Cleveland convention in July.
The outcome in Wisconsin will help determine whether Trump can seize the Republican nomination without a fight at the convention.
The Democratic race has grown increasingly bitter, too, though it’s not matched the GOP contest for raw hostility. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were set to attend a Wisconsin Democratic Party dinner. Their attention will quickly turn to an even more consequential contest, in New York on April 19, where the Democratic front-runner dearly hopes to avoid an upset in the state she served as senator.
Sanders urged rally-goers to come out in droves Tuesday.
“Here is the political reality,” he told a young and pumped-up crowd on the University of Wisconsin’s Eau Claire campus. “If there is a large voter turnout, if working people, many of whom have given up on the political process, if young people come, perhaps for the first time … we will win on Tuesday.”
Sanders supporters waited for hours to hear him.
Sophomore Joseph Lehto said he probably will vote for an independent if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination. “Hillary Clinton is a conservative disguised by mildly social policies” he said. “She is a more of warmonger than just about anyone.”
At Trump’s second rally, in Wausau, many in the crowd seemed unfazed by Trump’s recent troubles.
Trump supporter Brian Reif, 43, said “Reagan changed his mind on the issue, too” and he wasn’t bothered by Trump’s occasional harsh statements about women.
“I don’t believe Mr. Trump is meaning to obliterate women with his words,” said Reif, who works in manufacturing in nearby Stratford. “But he will hit back. Mr. Trump is like a porcupine: If you mess with him, he shoots the quills.”
Also in the crowd was Sue Staab, who printed custom signs calling Trump “a guardian angel from heaven.”
In an interview Friday, to be broadcast on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump left open the question of an independent candidacy when asked about it. “I want to run as a Republican,” Trump said. But if he doesn’t get the nomination? “I’m going to have to see how I was treated. Very simple.”
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.