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Trump and Cruz Prompt GOP Establishment Panic

January 22, 2016, 2:18 PM UTC
GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Sen. Ted Cruz stand on stage during the CNN presidential debate at The Venetian Las Vegas on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Thirteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the fifth set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Photograph by Ethan Miller — Getty Images

This is what establishment panic looks like.

Ten days before the Republican presidential primary kicks off in Iowa, party leaders are at increasingly frantic odds with each other over a contest that’s coming down to what they view as a pair of repellent options. There is no consensus, much less a strategy, about how to confront the candidacies of billionaire Donald Trump and firebrand Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Instead, top elected officials and rightwing thinkers are lashing out, wildly and at cross-purposes.

The latest salvo came Thursday night, when the National Review, the respected conservative journal, unveiled a special issue dedicated to denouncing Trump’s candidacy. The issue, titled “Against Trump,” features mini-essays from 22 thought-leaders across the conservative spectrum all arguing that a Trump nomination would spell disaster for the cause.

The magazine’s anti-Trump manifesto — the first of its kind in the magazine’s 61-year history, according to editor Rich Lowry — earned a swift rebuke from the Republican National Committee, which revoked National Review’s cosponsorship of a GOP debate next month.

The stunt capped an already wild day in the Republican race, as leading elected officials appeared to be warming to Trump as their best hope for stopping Cruz. The Texas Senator still leads in Iowa, sowing fears among his Republican colleagues in the chamber, who openly revile him, that he may amass enough early momentum to run away with the nod. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch predicted Cruz would lose the White House if he emerges as the nominee, telling CNN: “I’ve come around a little bit on Trump.” Bob Dole, the former Senate Majority Leader from Kansas and 1996 Republican nominee, said a Cruz win would be “cataclysmic” for the party, with down-ballot wipeouts for GOP candidates as a result.

The Trump-Cruz split between rightwing pols and intellectuals is striking. And it apparently comes down to priorities: Elected officials reason Trump can help them win, while the thinkers reason he’d happily sell out conservative principles to do so and is therefore an even graver threat than Cruz. But at least one prominent Senator isn’t bothering to draw a distinction. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, himself a presidential candidate until he dropped out and endorsed establishment favorite Jeb Bush, said choosing between the two candidates is “a lot like being shot or poisoned. I think you get the same result.”