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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, United States, April 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

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By Steve Holland

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Donald Trump tried to put a difficult week behind him and rally his supporters on Monday ahead of a crucial Republican presidential contest in Wisconsin, where he faced the unfamiliar position of underdog.

Polls show the Republican front-runner trails U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in the Midwestern state, where a loss on Tuesday could dent the New York billionaire' s aura of inevitability and make it harder for him to win the 1,237 delegates needed for the party's nomination for the Nov. 8 election.

But Trump told voters at a morning rally in La Crosse, Wisconsin, they could propel him toward the nomination by delivering a surprise victory for him over Cruz.

"If we do well here, folks, it's over," Trump said. "If we don't win here, it's not over, but wouldn't you like to take the credit in Wisconsin for ending it?"

Trump said an array of forces were aligned against him in Wisconsin, including the state's governor, Scott Walker, who has backed Cruz, and a "very hostile media." He also said it was "unfair" that rival John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, refused to get out of the race despite trailing Trump and Cruz badly.

"Your vote is going to be very important tomorrow because the world is watching Wisconsin," Trump told supporters. "They're seeing if this momentum from this incredible movement is going to be slowed down."

Despite winning 20 nominating contests, the controversial real estate tycoon has drawn opposition from an array of party establishment forces worried that he will lead Republicans to defeat in November.

Trump has won 736 delegates to the July nominating convention in Cleveland, but is till 501 short of the majority he needs to clinch the nomination. Rivals Cruz and Kasich hope to stop him short of a first-ballot victory and trigger a contested convention.

Cruz told reporters the party was beginning to unify behind him, and a win in Wisconsin would spark a surge of momentum for him in upcoming contests.

"What we’re seeing is the party unifying behind our campaign," Cruz said in Madison. "I hope and believe tomorrow night's going to be a very good night here in Wisconsin."

A Trump loss would cap a rough week, including an avalanche of criticism for his suggestion, which he later dialled back, that women be punished for getting abortions if the procedure is banned. Uncharacteristically, Trump also acknowledged that he made a mistake retweeting an attack on Cruz's wife, according to the New York Times.

He also drew fire last week for saying he would not rule out using nuclear weapons in Europe and that Japan and South Korea might need their own nuclear arsenals to ease the U.S. financial commitment to their security.

Cruz was eager to capitalise on Trump's missteps, talking about his family during a town hall session in an attempt to soften his strident image and appeal to women turned off by Trump’s recent comments.

At a later rally, Cruz told voters the entire country was looking toward Wisconsin.

"Let’s show the country that this race is not about yelling and screaming and insults," he said in Madison.

Even with a victory in Wisconsin, Cruz still faces difficult odds to win the delegates needed to secure the nomination, given that the next states to vote, including New York on April 19 and five Northeastern states on April 26, are more Trump-friendly territory.

Cruz has 463 delegates, 774 short of the total needed for the nomination, according to an Associated Press count.

In the Democratic race, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has a small 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.

A Wisconsin win by Sanders would put the focus on the April 19 contest in New York, where Clinton was campaigning on Monday. Sanders still faces a tough task to overcome Clinton's lead of 268 pledged delegates in the Democratic race.

At a New York City event celebrating a hike in the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, Clinton noted Trump has said wages are too high. That drew boos from the crowd, which included a large number of labour union members.

"I don’t know what the calculation is by Trump and others but I’ll tell you this: They are selling Americans short,” Clinton said.

(Additional reporting by Luciana Lopez, Susan Heavey, Megan Cassella; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)

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