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Both Parties Recover From Vulnerable Week For Tuesday Primaries

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Voters in Wisconsin go to the polls Tuesday, and the lead-up to this latest primary has exposed vulnerabilities within both parties. NPR's Sarah McCammon is in Madison covering the Republican side, and Tamara Keith is in Milwaukee following the Democrats. They join me both on the line. Good morning, you two.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Sarah, let's start with you because it feels like last week was harder than usual for Donald Trump. He veered into all these controversies surrounding abortion - how he was talking about abortion, national security - and for once, he seemed to have trouble with his responses. He seemed to have been faltering. He is now dragging in the Wisconsin polls.

Where are we at right now in the Trump campaign? I mean, is this a moment that means something? Could he lose the momentum that he's had for so long?

MCCAMMON: Well, I would hesitate to predict anything in this race (laughter) Rachel.

MARTIN: Indeed.

MCCAMMON: But it hasn't been Trump's best week, that's true. He has had to walk back two separate comments about abortion in the past few days, and this is of course a really important issue for much of the GOP base.

So to review, there was one interview mid-week where he said if abortion were banned, women who seek illegal abortion should be punished. Hours later, the campaign said, no, actually doctors should be prosecuted, not women.

Then on Friday in another interview, he said abortion laws are settled and should probably stay the way they are. The campaign had to clarify that, too. It said, you know, Trump would try to change abortion laws once elected through judicial appointments. But Rachel, both statements showed just how inexperienced he is at talking about this important issue.

He also told The New York Times it was a mistake to retweet an unflattering photo of rival Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi, and, you know - meanwhile yes, the polls show Trump trailing Cruz here in Wisconsin. So it hasn't been a good week. But he is still the front runner, and he has survived a lot of bad weeks.

MARTIN: What does Wisconsin mean for him, though? In terms of his planned path to the nomination, how significant is it?

MCCAMMON: I mean, it's important. It's not make-or-break. It would certainly put him a lot closer to locking down the nomination. If he were able to win all of Wisconsin's 42 delegates on the Republican side, he'd only need 15 - 51 percent of the remaining delegates to lock down the nomination.

If he loses all of them he would need 56 percent, just to give you a sense of kind of where things could stand after this. But again, not make-or-break, but it could be important for momentum going into future contests.

MARTIN: All right, Tam, let's move to the other side of this whole thing, talk about the Democrats.

KEITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Sen. Bernie Sanders - he's looking pretty strong in Wisconsin. He won two neighboring states. And Wisconsin is, demographically speaking, a sweet spot for him, right?

KEITH: Absolutely. It is a demographic sweet spot for him. Another reason that Wisconsin favors Bernie Sanders is that the state has an open primary, and he's done quite well in states that have open primaries. It has a big, huge university here that is Bernie Sanders country.

MARTIN: Young people, yeah.

KEITH: Young people, exactly. And he especially does well with young people. I went to an event yesterday that was very interesting. It was a town hall event in an African-American neighborhood. It was supposed to be an intimate discussion of race. It ended up being possibly more intimate than he had expected.

MARTIN: How so?

KEITH: The campaign set up 500 chairs and five minutes before it was set to start, they started putting away chairs. There are maybe 150, 200 people ultimately. It - the optics are not great. But then, you know, he had a rally with 4,300 people in another town. So it's - the demographics are interesting for him, yeah.

MARTIN: Let's move to this little tense moment - I mean, because we've seen a few. These are Democrats who both - Clinton and Sanders have liked to say that they're not into making personal attacks, but things started to get a little tense last week.

KEITH: Yes, they absolutely did. A Greenpeace protester - activist went to a Hillary Clinton event and was asking her to stop taking money from the fossil fuels industry, and Hillary Clinton responded by saying that I - you know, the Sanders campaign needs to stop lying about me.

And much fact-checking later, Clinton's campaign has gotten about $300,000 from people employed in the fossil fuels industry, which is a very small share of her overall haul in fundraising.

But the Sanders campaign is loving this. And in fact, here in Wisconsin Bernie Sanders is running an ad that says, you know, I don't take money from big oil or big pharma or big lots of other things. So he's making it an issue in this race.

MARTIN: NPR's Tamara Keith in Milwaukee and Sarah McCammon in Madison, Wis. Thanks to you both.

MCCAMMON: Thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.