Get ready for major Republican officials and large donors to begin a campaign to unite behind an alternative to presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz and put intense pressure on two of the leading center-right candidates to drop out of the race before the Super Tuesday GOP voting.
Today, the GOP establishment is in total disarray. There is a fair chance that the two top candidates in the South Carolina primary will turn out to be Cruz and Trump battling for first and second place with the center-right alternatives coming in distant third, fourth and fifth places because they are dividing the anti-Cruz and anti-Trump vote.
Democrats, who feel a growing unease about the Democratic contest, are ecstatic that Republicans might nominate Cruz or Trump, both of whom are viewed by Democrats — correctly, in my view — as unelectable. Most Republican leaders and many of the largest Republican donors feel exactly the same way, and fear great peril if the GOP nominates Trump or Cruz.
The problem facing the GOP establishment is that none of the center-right candidates — all of whom would be credible candidates and presidents — have emerged as front-runners for the anybody-but-Cruz mantle.
Most polling suggests that Trump, who is now attacking Pope Francis, would lose and potentially lose big to either possible Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders. Trump's negative ratings are so extreme that he could win the GOP nomination and lose the general election by huge margins that could threaten Republican control of Congress.
Cruz, who is probably the most intensely disliked senator in my memory, and who is disliked by senators in the Republican Cloakroom as much as the Democratic Cloakroom, has already employed dirty campaign tactics that have offended many GOP voters and leaders. His campaign has made false statements, suggesting that Ben Carson would be dropping out before the Iowa Republican caucus. In addition, his campaign sent a menacing letter to Iowa voters shortly before the vote, which could raise legal issues if it used the Postal Service to mail information that was knowingly false. Trump has aggressively attacked this, as well as challenging whether Cruz meets the citizenship standards that would make him eligible to be president.
I expect a movement to promote anybody but Trump and Cruz to emerge shortly after the South Carolina primary. The battle from South Carolina through Super Tuesday through the GOP convention promises to become very ugly.
The problem facing the GOP establishment is that none of the center-right candidates — all of whom would be credible candidates and presidents — have emerged as front-runners for the anybody-but-Cruz mantle, which I recently referred to in a column as "Plan C."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was poised to seize this mantle after his strong showing in Iowa, but his disastrous performance in the debate before the New Hampshire primary knocked him down several notches and ended his hopes of making a huge bid for front-runner status.
The strong showing of Ohio Gov. John Kasich in New Hampshire, the revival of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush campaign's after his comparatively strong showing in New Hampshire, plus the serious problems that followed Rubio's disastrous debate performance all have compounded the chaos in the Republican establishment ranks.
If one of the center-right candidates emerges after upcoming voting in Nevada and South Carolina, that candidate will receive a huge boost going into Super Tuesday and there will be a coalescence of GOP leaders and big donors around that candidate ahead of Super Tuesday. If the center-right candidates for the Plan C mantle continue to cancel each other out during the coming weeks, the chaos within the GOP establishment will become all-out panic.
In any event, sooner or later, there will be a visible and powerful anybody-but-Trump-or-Cruz movement and a high-noon showdown. The center-right candidate who emerges as the candidate of that movement could continue right up until the balloting for the nomination at the Republican National Convention.