Donald Trump’s emergence as the big fish in a now-tiny pool of three remaining Republican presidential candidates has touched off a remarkable scramble by political powerbrokers to quickly choose sides, all while talk of a potential independent run isn’t going away.
The feverish effort to either boost or block Trump is leading to unexpected alliances as some hitch their name to the GOP front-runner, and others do whatever they can to try and thwart him. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former candidate who previously had backed Jeb Bush, was the latest surprise, announcing Thursday he’s now banking on Ted Cruz.
Graham bluntly acknowledged he prefers Ohio Gov. John Kasich – but said only Texas Sen. Cruz has a path to defeating Trump in the primary.
“If we give the banner of the Republican Party to Donald Trump, we tarnish it, maybe, forever. That might be the end of the Republican Party as we know it,” warned Graham, who plans to hold a fundraiser for the Texas senator.
On the sidelines, a trio of conservative leaders also held a meeting in Washington Thursday to discuss a “stop-Trump” strategy. As first reported by Politico, Erick Erickson, the founder of RedState.com, was joined by former adviser to President George. W. Bush Bill Wichterman, and South Dakota businessman Bob Fischer.
Erickson told Fox News on Thursday the meeting was attended by conservative activists who see the Trump candidacy as a threat to the conservative cause. “Contrary to what the Trump campaign says, it wasn’t the elite. … It was the guys who have been knocking on doors for Republican candidates for decades – people who are actually committed to conservative principles ahead of the party,” he said.
This chaotic phase of the primary race is making for some strange bedfellows.
Graham, for instance, previously had taken to trashing Cruz in interviews. He told CNN last month the senator might be worse than President Obama and if the GOP choice is between Trump and Cruz, "it's the difference between poisoned or shot -- you're still dead."
Now, Graham is setting those misgivings aside as the prospect of Trump winning the nomination becomes increasingly likely.
Even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, while stopping short of an endorsement, reportedly said Wednesday that Cruz is the “only conservative left in the race.” Back on Capitol Hill Thursday, Rubio said “there is still time to stop a Trump presidency.” Meanwhile, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who had backed Rubio, says she’s now rooting for Cruz.
At the Erickson meeting, among the options reportedly being discussed was sending a last-minute candidate to the convention in Cleveland if no candidate reaches the coveted 1,237 delegates and the convention is deadlocked.
He told Fox News the biggest consensus point was that both Trump and Hillary Clinton are unacceptable candidates for the presidency. Regarding a strategy to defeat Trump, he said “the consensus was that everyone would rather settle this on the convention floor at the Republican convention in Cleveland.”
Though the main strategy is to use convention rules and delegate math to deny Trump the nomination, Erickson did not rule out a last-minute effort to run an independent candidate if Trump ultimately wins the nomination in Cleveland.
The meeting comes just days after Trump won at least three states, including Florida’s 99 delegate winner-take-all contest, and declared victory in a fourth, Missouri.
Before Tuesday, Cruz also had ex-candidates Rick Perry and Carly Fiorina in his corner.
But even as Cruz gains additional support, Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are gaining new backers.
Trump already had the endorsements of former candidates Chris Christie and Ben Carson. He added to that the support this week of Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
“Donald Trump is clearly the will of the voters. We need to listen to them, coalesce behind him,” Scott told Fox News.
And Kasich has picked up support from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, as well as from former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. Utah votes next week, alongside Arizona.
“Governor John Kasich had a decisive and critical win in Ohio,” Leavitt said in a statement. “I trust his temperament and the tone of his campaign. I worked closely with Governor Kasich over many years and I have witnessed his ability to bring people together to get things done. I think he has the best opportunity to beat Hillary Clinton.”
While Trump vows he will eventually win the nomination, party leaders are unsure whether he might enter the convention with the requisite 1,237 delegates. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday it’s becoming more likely that the convention will be open.
But Trump could still emerge the nominee at a contested convention.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News on Thursday that the talk of a contested convention is only complicating the process. He said Trump and Cruz have 80 percent of the delegates and any insurgent candidate from the establishment would be taken down by the two.
“It’s an amusing parlor game, it has no meaning in the real world,” Gingrich said. “If they want to form the let’s elect Hillary Clinton club, fine.”
There was yet another reported plot to thwart Trump. Earlier in the month, it was reported that Bush met with Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich individually before last Thursday’s debate in Miami. Rubio’s spokesperson then urged his supporters to vote for Kasich in Ohio, a state he won.
Additionally, Cruz pulled advertising and campaign staffers from both Florida and Ohio.
Trump, meanwhile, continues to face a string of controversies. He was scolded by Ryan on Thursday after saying there could be “riots” if he’s not chosen at the convention. The Daily Caller also reported that a Trump op-ed published in a Guam publication appeared to be partly plagiarized from an op-ed from Carson published in a Northern Mariana Islands publication.