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Crunch time for the GOP

Back in June, when Donald Trump announced for president and promised a Southern wall to exclude Mexican “rapists,” the nation’s political establishment pronounced him a failure.

Done. Over. Toast.

Then Trump followed by questioning Sen. John McCain’s war hero status, tangling with a Fox News host and proposing a ban on some Muslims entering the country and, just last week, prosecuting women for having abortions.

Done. Over. Toast.

Not so fast. As everyone who follows politics knows, Trump not only survives but prospers. So why would Trump change anything when “outrageous” propels him to the top of the heap?

But now crunch time approaches, and Ted Cruz and John Kasich hang in there. Indeed, Cruz appears more than competitive in Tuesday’s Wisconsin Republican primary, where a Marquette University poll shows him leading Trump 40 to 30 percent, with Kasich at 21 percent.

But in a place that really matters – New York – Trump continues to confound the experts. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, Trump leads among New York Republicans with 56 percent, followed by Cruz at 20 percent and Kasich at 19 percent.

So we asked Kevin Hardwick of Canisius College to dive into the numbers and the trends. Hardwick – former radio host, political scientist, Republican county legislator and Kasich supporter – wears so many hats his closet overflows. And while he enthusiastically supports Kasich (whom he once escorted to Niagara Falls during a visit years ago), he understands why the contest continues even as Trump dominates a key state like New York.

Cruz’s strength in Wisconsin, Hardwick says, underscores why Kasich remains in a race in which no candidate may arrive at the Cleveland convention with the 1,237 delegates needed for nomination.

“Some of Trump’s supporters will begin to realize when they look at general election surveys that he’s damaging the brand,” Hardwick said, wondering how Trump will attract independents and even Democrats not necessarily enamored with presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

So Hardwick predicts Kasich will campaign hard in New York once Wisconsin wraps up on Tuesday. For two weeks in our state, expect to see the governor of Ohio take on Trump, who enjoys hometown status, constant media exposure, billions in the bank, an anti-establishment reputation, a lead in the polls and official organization across the state.

“People are beginning to realize the importance of the rules of the game; that it’s not a statewide popular vote but congressional district by congressional district,” Hardwick says. “So I think you’ll see John Kasich cherry-pick in certain congressional districts.”

That means Kasich travels up the road from Columbus to Cleveland in July with enough delegates to stay in the game – all according to the “rules.” It means he arrives with enough delegates to remain in play (with a few he hopes to snare in New York) should Trump fail to break the 1,237 mark.

Then the rules change.

“If Trump loses Wisconsin, it’s going to be a very different path after that,” Hardwick says. “It’s going to be an exciting week in Cleveland. And it’s not going to be pretty.”

Back in Erie County, political eyes remain trained on Assemblyman Sean Ryan of Buffalo as he weighs a Democratic candidacy for the departing Marc Panepinto’s Senate seat. As Ryan ponders the pros and cons outlined in last week’s Politics Column, and as the situation’s closest observers say nothing is certain, the local Democratic Party is preparing for Plan B if Ryan bows out.

According to Chairman Jeremy Zellner, that could mean endorsing nobody, especially with as many as six possible candidates representing so many factions.

“No one rises to the top right now,” Zellner said of candidates other than Ryan. “I’m open to the possibility of no endorsement and having an open primary.”