By Steve Holland
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz appears poised for victory over Donald Trump in Wisconsin on Tuesday, presenting himself as a uniter for Republican voters despite a Senate tenure marked by bitter feuds and uncompromising stances.
Cruz, a first-term U.S. senator from Texas, is trying to make the case he is the last remaining Republican candidate with a pathway to beat Trump for the party's presidential nomination and is the best choice left for Republicans who cannot bring themselves to vote for the New York billionaire.
Wisconsin's primary contest will be a test of whether his strategy will work. Opinion polls show Cruz has opened up a lead in the state on Trump, front-runner to become the party's nominee in the Nov. 8 presidential election. Ohio Governor John Kasich is in third place.
"The entire country is looking to Wisconsin," Cruz said on Monday. "What we are seeing in Wisconsin is the unity of the Republican Party manifested."
With a week of headlines focused on his missteps and his lag in Wisconsin polls, Trump released a plan early on Tuesday on how he would fulfill his campaign promise to make Mexico pay for the wall he has proposed along the U.S. border.
Trump vowed to cut off money transfers to Mexico unless it made a payment of $5 billion to $10 billion for the wall, if he is elected, The Washington Post reported. The Post said the move blocking remittances could cripple Mexico's economy.
The real estate tycoon has made the wall a cornerstone of his larger platform targeting illegal immigration, a stance popular with his supporters.
In the Democratic race, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has a slender lead in opinion polls in Wisconsin over front-runner Hillary Clinton and is trying to add to his momentum after winning five of the last six contests. He still faces a tough task in defeating the favored Clinton for the nomination.
Playing a party uniter is an unlikely role for Cruz, who forced the U.S. government to shut down for six days in 2013 in a budget fight with Democratic President Barack Obama. Republicans ended up being blamed for the shutdown and Cruz's relationship with Senate Republicans leaders has been stormy.
"Everybody hates Cruz," Trump said at his rallies Monday.
But enmity toward Trump among many in the party establishment is such that Cruz can now count five of his former rivals for the presidential nomination among his backers, including U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said earlier this year that the choice between Trump and Cruz "is like being shot or poisoned."
Cruz has taken steps to soften his image. He told Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in a town hall on Monday in Madison, Wisconsin, that he wished he had done a "better job reaching out" to his Senate colleagues and building a broader coalition.
'FEVERED PIPE DREAM'
But he told reporters that only he and Trump had the ability to earn the 1,237 delegates from the primary contests necessary to win the nomination outright.
If no candidate reached that number of delegates, Republicans' choices at a contested nominating convention in July would be limited to him and Trump, because Kasich had not won the minimum eight states to get on the convention ballot, Cruz said.
Cruz has intensified calls for Kasich to drop out of the race, prompting Kasich to bristle on Monday, "Don't push me around."
Cruz also rejected talk that establishment Republicans might seek to nominate a new face at the convention, with names circulating like House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan or 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. He called it a "fevered pipe dream of Washington that at the convention they will parachute in some white knight."
"It ain’t going to happen. If it did, the people would quite rightly revolt," said Cruz.
While Cruz may carry the day in Wisconsin, the road to the nomination does not get any easier for him. The next states to vote, including New York on April 19 and five Northeastern states on April 26, are more Trump-friendly territory.
Trump leads with 737 delegates and Cruz has 475, according to an Associated Press count. Kasich, with 143 delegates, has no chance to gather enough delegates to win on the first ballot but has refused to end his candidacy.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney and Frances Kerry)