Three candidates for the Republican nomination have broken away from the rest of the pack, and two of them — businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — give the GOP establishment nightmares.
That leaves the third member of the trio, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, potentially well placed to pick up the support of center-right Republican voters who are looking for someone to stop Trump and Cruz at almost any cost.
But Rubio is behind both of his top-tier rivals in national polling averages and is even further back in Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation caucuses, where he holds fourth place, albeit behind the fast-fading Ben Carson.
An even deeper problem for the Florida senator is that other candidates who are competing for the same voters are unlikely to drop out before the New Hampshire primary. That means votes that might otherwise go to Rubio could instead be won by contenders such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Add all these factors together and it becomes clear why establishment Republicans are so concerned, especially in the wake of Trump’s inflammatory call to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Cruz, meanwhile, has been enjoying a rapid rise in the polls.
“Listen, I think both Cruz and Trump would have a similar impact on the party, neither of which would be very good. I am actually more concerned about Cruz than I am about Trump,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, a former senior leadership aide who is a columnist for The Hill.
Feehery added, “I think Cruz has made a reputation of relentless mendacity … I think he’s a demagogue and I think he’ll destroy the party. I think Trump is much more of a blowhard. But there’s not really a dime’s worth of difference between Trump and Cruz.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Trump sat atop the RealClearPolitics national polling average, with the backing of 29.3 percent of GOP voters, with Cruz in second, at 15.5 percent. Rubio was just behind, with 14.8 percent. In Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held on Feb. 1, Cruz runs much closer, with 22.3 percent average support to Trump’s 25.7 percent. Rubio is farther behind in the Hawkeye State than nationally, drawing 13.7 percent backing.
Trump’s comments calling for a “shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. have been condemned by many Republicans, as well as Democrats and unaligned observers. Included among his critics are Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who both lambasted him on Tuesday. The condemnation of a party’s presidential front-runner by that same party’s most senior members of Congress is without precedent, at least in modern times.