Donald Trump is narrowing Hillary Clinton's national lead in the final days before Tuesday’s election, thanks in part to growing support from Republican voters.
But Clinton remains favored to win, and Republican leaders are subtly working to shield themselves from recriminations in the event they lose a third consecutive presidential election for the first time since the 1940s.
"If Trump loses by a hair, then there will be people madder than hell at the elitist party establishment more willing to give the country to Hillary than elect Donald Trump," U.S. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, said in an interview.
After months of silence and dodging questions about Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky delivered his strongest statement of support yet for the GOP standard-bearer on Wednesday, saying, "We need a new president, Donald Trump, to be the most powerful Republican in America." House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who vowed to stop defending the nominee in early October when a decade-old tape emerged showing Trump boasting about groping women, said he voted early for Trump.
The jockeying revealed a party on the brink of a painful struggle between the ascendant nativist-nationalist wing that favors Trump and the Ryan-esque pluralist wing that rallies around limited government.
"Their public statements towards the end of the campaign will be used to neutralize those who complain that they didn't support the nominee," said Joe Watkins, a former aide to President George W. Bush.
As McConnell and Ryan, already distrusted by many in their party base, try to avoid accusations of enabling Trump's potential defeat, pro-Trump forces are already calling out prominent Republican holdouts like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Ohio Governor John Kasich as the reason he might lose.
Looming Civil War
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a top Trump surrogate, said in a recent interview that Republicans who failed to get behind him will be remembered as having contributed to Clinton's election.
"If Trump were to lose, they get a lot of credit for what Hillary Clinton will do to America—make us a more socialist country," Giuliani said.
On the other side of this debate are Republicans who argue that Trump is ultimately responsible for his performance.
"Trump's fate was in Trump's hands," said Kevin Madden, a former aide to Romney. "So, when a candidate attacks leaders within their party or promotes ideas that run counter to Republican principles, all while failing even the most basic character test, that candidate runs the risk of losing support."
Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush spokesman and outspoken Trump critic, said the populist wing of the party got what it wanted with Trump: a candidate who will seek to boost white voters that don't turn out for establishment candidates.
"If Trump loses it's his fault," Miller said in an e-mail. "They can try to blame whoever they want."
McConnell and Ryan are also motivated by a desire to maintain their Senate and House majorities. A New York Times/CBS poll Thursday found Trump within 3 points of Clinton, winning 81 percent of Republicans—similar to Hillary Clinton's 83 percent showing with Democrats. Republican candidates in House and Senate races are relying on those Trump voters.
Seeds Of Discontent
Some Republicans note that Trump has failed to focus on building a ground operation to maximize his vote.
"If Donald Trump loses the November election by a narrower margin than Mitt Romney it will be because of the fact that he chose to spend the money that he raised on advertising and not on organization. His unwillingness to build an organization on the ground in the key battleground states would have been his undoing," Watkins said.
The seeds of discontent have been planted. A majority of Republican voters, 51 percent, say Trump better represents their vision than Ryan, who received 33 percent, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll taken mid-October. Ryan, who has strong support among party elites, has seen his approval rating with the GOP base take a nosedive recently.
At a Trump rally in Tallahassee last week, supporters dished on Ryan.
"I think Paul Ryan is not a very good leader," said Fred Jones, 71, of Atlanta, citing "his stance on not backing Trump wholeheartedly from the beginning."
"I think Paul Ryan's trying to make a run at the presidency one day so he's trying to be critical" of Trump, said John Stehmeyer of Tallahassee. "Ryan's saying that for his own image. In his dream he'd like to be president one day."
Craig Boyd, 47, wanted the same fate for Ryan that he wants for Clinton.
"He needs to go to jail," Boyd said. "He's basically a traitor."
—With assistance from Billy House.