That was then, this is now.

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Trump's Coalition of the Unwilling

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Oh, how the mighty are falling in line, if not in love. The most stalwart Donald Trump deniers among establishment Republicans are clambering to get on board. Support is a depreciating asset: Wait until the train leaves the station at the Cleveland convention and you’ll get little for swallowing your pride, abandoning your conscience and stifling your fears.  

A corollary of that is that the higher-placed the opponent, the more valuable the capitulation. That’s why Senator Lindsey Graham getting with the program over the weekend is so important. It’s part of bringing a divided party back together. Without that, it is hard to win. What should worry Hillary Clinton are new polls showing that Trump is within three points of her. More worrying for her is the speed at which the Republicans are coming together: In an NBC-WSJ poll, Trump is winning among Republicans over Clinton 86 percent to 6 percent, up from 72 percent to 13 percent a month ago.  

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Complete capitulation by Graham is unlikely but acceptance of Trump by the most outspoken Never-Trump senator is a notable step toward a united convention in July. You may remember that Trump lashed out at Graham by giving out his private mobile-phone number, and that Graham responded by destroying said phone in front of TV cameras.

Throughout the campaign, as a conservative in good standing, Graham’s biting criticisms carried weight. He called Trump a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot" in December. A few weeks later, in January, Graham said he would support neither Trump nor Senator Ted Cruz -- a choice he said was like deciding whether to be "shot or poisoned." By March, when it looked like nothing was working to stop Trump, he threw his weight behind Cruz. Apparently, given the choice, he did prefer one kind of death over another.

Graham’s desperate move to Cruz didn’t work but he stood firm. Even as Trump clinched the nomination, Graham wasn’t having any part of it. As recently as the beginning of this month, Graham said he wouldn't support his party's presumptive nominee. "I do not believe he is a reliable Republican conservative nor has he displayed the judgment and temperament to serve as commander in chief," Graham said, adding that Trump had "conned" the party.

Count Graham now in the conned column. A few moments on his new mobile phone with the Trumpster and Graham wants to let bygones be bygones. The shift started Friday when Graham said on CNN that he had a "cordial, pleasant” call from Trump in which they talked about national security, the scariest of Trump’s governing shortfalls and an area he needs all the tutoring he can get. Graham can’t abandom his past, vivid feelings about Trump altogether and  so he didn’t. "My criticism has been wide and it's been deep but we did have a good conversation," he said. "He asked good questions.”

Hmmmmm. That’s not a lot to hang a change of heart on but when you want to come around, any fig leaf will do. The usually sober Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker softened after Trump’s first speech on foreign affairs. Trump, who’d  pronounced himself his best adviser, did not garner good reviews, with most experts calling the speech incoherent at best, but Corker said it was "very thoughtful." Senator Kelly Ayotte, in a tough re-election race in New Hampshire, hedged her bets by making a distinction without any meaning. She “supports” but is not “endorsing” Trump. And so it goes. 

True enough, Clinton will unite her side when the primaries are over. But that comes with an asterisk that Trump doesn’t have to deal with. Trump had no one person among his 16 opponents for the nomination leading  a movement. Clinton has one such person, Senator Bernie Sanders, a figure who’s accrued a devoted following among young people. A recent ABC-Washington Post poll shows Clinton is losing 20 percent of Sanders’s supporters. Compare that to the 11 percent of Republicans who supported someone other than Trump for the nomination. It’s not that the 20 percent isn’t going to show up for Clinton. They say they will show up to vote for Trump.

There are holdouts -- the Bush family, Mitt Romney, the freshman Senator Ben Sasse, and the hemming and hawing House Speaker Paul Ryan -- but there’s pressure coming from peace-at-any-cost Republican National Chairman Reince Priebius to come around now.

Within 24 hours of his CNN appearance, Graham’s inclination not to endorse Trump had melted to the point where he was urging others in the party to do so. At a private fundraiser in Florida, Graham urged Republicans to back Trump, saying that any doubts they have should be erased by the greater evil of having a Clinton back in the White House.

Graham’s press secretary, Kevin Bishop, confirmed that the senator attended a fundraiser in Florida on Saturday but didn’t confirm the remarks, though attendees did so to CNN. Bishop said that Graham is not supporting the third-party run some conservatives are organizing, adding that an explicit Graham endorsement wouldn’t necessarily help Trump.

Count among other holdouts some major donors, according to the New York Times, including the very articulate investor Michael Vlock. Explaining his closed wallet, he said of Trump: "He’s an ignorant, amoral, dishonest and manipulative, misogynistic, philandering, hyper-litigious, isolationist, protectionist blowhard."

Graham couldn’t have said it better --  a few weeks ago. As a moth is drawn to the flame, politicians are drawn to power. For his early and flattering remarks, Corker has joined the short list of vice-presidential possibilities. There will surely be more to follow. Little Marco told a Miami radio station that he’d always said he would support the Republican nominee, especially given that the likely Democratic candidate is Clinton. Lyin Ted is having a hard time getting over, well, being called Lyin Ted among other things, and has not yet folded.

But, every day and with greater speed, there will be others who short of falling in love will fall in line. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net