Republican elites are 0-for-2 in presidential nominating contests this year, a rare and panic-inducing outcome for the party's leadership. Yet their preferred candidates continue to fight each other, and have begun the march to the next battlefield in South Carolina without a plan to stop Donald Trump.
Not only did the billionaire's 20-point blowout in the New Hampshire primary fail to cull the field enough to present a clear mainstream alternative, the three remaining establishment candidates—U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Ohio Governor John Kasich and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor—spent the following days going after one another, as they have throughout the nomination fight.
“Enormous pressure is on the establishment wing to consolidate around one candidate soon or else it will hand the Republican nomination over to Trump,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former senior congressional aide.
They're running out of time. With plenty of campaign cash to spare, Trump is pushing the kind of nationalistic message on immigration and foreign policy that resonates in South Carolina, a state that flew the Confederate flag on its capitol grounds until last year. The primaries beyond are just as southern and just as friendly to Trump's message. And he remains an extremely difficult candidate to beat in a war of words and media attention.
“As long as there's five or six people running, I think Donald benefits from that, no doubt about it,” Rubio said Wednesday on CNN.
The anxiety has grown more palpable as Trump has shattered predictions that his crowds and poll numbers wouldn't translate at the ballot box.
“Donald Trump has proven he can turn his rally-goers into voters, and now it’s time for his challengers to prove they’re capable of taking the steering wheel away from him,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican operative and former House leadership aide.
On Thursday, Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz said in a memo obtained by Bloomberg Politics that Rubio's team “feels like it has something to prove and seeks to further a reputation for employing questionable tactics in South Carolina,” following a pro-Rubio super-PAC mailer in New Hampshire that was interpreted as attacking the Bush family.
“I have tremendous respect for the Bush family,” responded Rubio, who was campaigning in South Carolina, noting he can't control what the super-PAC does. “I haven't seen any attack on his family. If I had, I'd repudiate it.”
The GOP's best hope of stopping Trump may be Ted Cruz. The Texas senator has amassed a devoted following of Tea Party conservatives and evangelical Christians, a war chest worth $19 million at year's end, and an enviable ground game that led him to an unexpected victory over Trump in Iowa and a respectable third place finish in New Hampshire.
Exit polls in Iowa offer a glimpse of Cruz's formula: He bested Trump among evangelicals and self-identified “very conservative” voters, two key segments of the national Republican electorate that exist in large numbers in the cluster of Southern states that vote on March 1.
Meanwhile, exit polls in the party's center-right New Hampshire base revealed no obvious weaknesses for Trump. He won voters across age groups, income levels, gender, marital status and ideologies; he even won independents. National polls say Trump is dominating among self-identified moderate Republicans, the group that the establishment-friendly candidates are also gunning for.
“What Iowa and New Hampshire demonstrate is that the only person in this field who can beat Donald Trump is me,” Cruz Wednesday told radio host Mike Gallagher. “You can’t beat Donald coming from the left. It just doesn’t work.”
But the Republican establishment has resisted coalescing behind Cruz because he's the one candidate that some party leaders dislike even more than Trump.
With Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina quitting the race on Wednesday, Bush, Rubio, and Kasich are competing to become the establishment favorite to take on Trump ahead of the Feb. 20 primary South Carolina.
“If those three get into a circular firing squad, the one who benefits is Trump,” said David Winston, a Republican consultant who worked on Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential campaign.
Bush attacked Kasich as a “one-state” candidate who has “nothing going on down here” in South Carolina. He also mocked Rubio's “coronation after a third place finish [in Iowa]—looks like they canceled it.”
On CNN, Rubio declared that “Jeb has no foreign policy experience—none.” Earlier, Rubio told reporters that he's “the only one running in this race who can quickly unite the Republican Party.”
Kasich said on CNN that he's “going to have to respond to some of this stuff” coming from Bush, acknowledging that his successful strategy to steer clear of the mud in New Hampshire may not work going forward.
Ken Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot Inc. and billionaire Republican donor who invested in Christie's bid, said the result Tuesday was “very positive” even though he hoped the New Jersey governor had done better.
“The overarching message that came out of New Hampshire last night is that the American people have had enough of the status quo. I think that’s wonderful,” Langone said in an interview before heading to a round of golf at the Seminole Golf Club in Florida.
He said he's not ready to back another candidate. “I'm going to sit tight,” he said. “I'm going to enjoy being on the sidelines, not having to make any calls or ask anybody for any money. I'm going to take a well-deserved vacation from political activity.”
Other Republican elites are eager to stop Trump, who enjoys leads in national surveys.
Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman who has ruled out supporting Trump, said the New Yorker “can be taken out” with attacks over issues. Outside groups ran ads hitting him in Iowa for backing eminent domain and his past support of abortion rights.
“We saw how targeting Trump on issues worked in Iowa,” Heye said. By contrast, he added, the campaign reveals that “name-calling with Trump—calling him a cancer, a liar, a loser—doesn’t work.”
Anti-Trump Republicans remain short on answers, though.
“The Donald is very entertaining,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a former presidential candidate turned Bush surrogate, told a crowd of more than 200 people gathered to see Bush in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “But he'll get us wiped out.”
—With assistance from Michael C. Bender, James Nash, Mark Niquette, John McCormick, and Zachary R. Mider.