Trump success creates rift in GOP

USA-ELECTION/TRUMP
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump speaks to reporters in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump held the news conference after winning several primaries.

Is this the way a political party dies, not with a bang, but with squabbling over spray tans, small hands, and sweat?

As billionaire populist Donald Trump took control of the Republican presidential race on Super Tuesday, a civil war already was raging in the party between those who vow they could never vote for a man they consider a bigot and a fraud, and other leaders preaching the need to unify around the eventual nominee in order to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"He has the potential to tear apart the Republican Party - all the pieces Ronald Reagan put together," said Charlie Gerow, a GOP communications strategist based in Harrisburg.

There are some rips in the fabric. Fewer than half the Republican senators and governors who responded to an Associated Press survey said they would commit to backing Trump if he is the nominee. A super PAC funded by wealthy party donors is stepping up its attempts to stop him, announcing a seven-figure ad campaign using Trump's defunct real estate school to paint him as a predatory con artist.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse wrote an open letter on Facebook saying that he would look for a third-party option if Trump is the nominee. Trump's "relentless focus is on dividing Americans and on tearing down rather than building," Sasse said.

Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, termed Trump "evil" in a guest column Monday in the Daily Beast and said stopping Trump outweighs winning the election.

"We hold elections every two years, and there is always the chance to regain lost offices," Stevens said. "But there is no mechanism to regain one's dignity and sense of decency once squandered. That defeat is permanent. To support Trump is to support a bigot. It's really that simple."

'Somehow it works'

Since 1976, Republican presidential races have tended to narrow to a binary choice between an establishment-favored front-runner and a conservative insurgent. Trump has shattered that equilibrium, bringing in a new alliance of the frustrated: white working-class men and women who feel the country's leaders have abandoned them economically and failed to stop American culture from slipping away.

He's done it with a nationalist message, promising, among other things, to build a wall on the border with Mexico and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, and restore power abroad.

In just the last few days, Trump failed to denounce an endorsement from a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader, retweeted a quote from Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, and endured reports that he had hired foreign workers at one of his companies over qualified Americans.

Any one of those things could trip up a normal candidate, but Trump has defied all the rules in an unusual year.

"He lets it fly and somehow it works," Gerow said. "I'm reminded of George Wallace in the 1968 campaign. His plane would land, he'd step out the back, grab a bullhorn, and just start riffing."

'Hostile takeover'

Trump also has been compared to Ross Perot, the businessman who won nearly 20 percent of the popular vote running as an independent in 1992, and GOP cultural warrior Pat Buchanan, who challenged President George H.W. Bush in that year's primaries. Stemming immigration was a staple of Buchanan's campaign.

Leading up to Super Tuesday - with the largest cache of delegates in the race - Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida began attacking Trump, blistering him on business failures and other issues.

Rubio and Trump traded insults, with the Florida senator mocking Trump's spray tan and "small hands," while Trump dismissed the younger man as a "lightweight" who sweats too much.

Trump carried six states, across the south, plus Massachusetts. Cruz won his home state and Oklahoma, while Rubio was the winner in Minnesota. Both have vowed to fight on, as have retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Kasich is counting on his home state, which votes March 15 and awards all of its 66 delegates to the winner instead of dividing them proportionally to the vote. Florida also votes that day and is winner-take-all.

The split field helps Trump. He is on the verge of what his Republican critics term a "hostile takeover" of the party.

"If Trump gets the nomination, there will be a very large defection of traditional Republican donors," predicted GOP ad maker Mike Hudome, who worked for John McCain's campaign, among others. "Where does he go to get the funding for a general-election campaign? It will cost upward of $1 billion, and I can't fathom he'll fund it himself."

Many establishment Republicans are worried Trump would surely lose to Clinton and might even lead to a wipeout in Senate races, acting as a drag on the ticket.

"I think a Trump-Clinton matchup is helpful for Democratic turnout," pollster Anna Greenberg said during a panel discussion last week at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Up and down turnouts

Voter turnout in the early Democratic contests is down by 20 percent to 30 percent compared with the competitive 2008 race, Greenberg said. Republicans have had record turnouts.

Trump's defenders say his coalition of working-class white voters could help make the GOP competitive in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, which have been trending Democratic. But as analyst Amy Walter pointed out in the Brookings discussion: "For every Western Pennsylvania . . . voter Trump is able to move from D to R, he's likely to lose a suburban Philadelphia mom."

Republican strategist John Brabender said he thinks the party's divisions will heal.

"A lot of Republicans are going through the seven stages of grief right now, and parts of the party are still in disbelief," Brabender said. He believes they will eventually get to acceptance. "Hillary Clinton can unify people behind Trump better than Trump himself can."

tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718@tomfitzgerald

www.philly.com/bigtent