With two weeks to go until the first contest of the 2016 presidential race, Republicans who fear their party has been hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz found little to comfort them in the latest debate.
Both candidates, one a billionaire developer with no political experience and the other a U.S. Senator from Texas with a reputation for clashing with his Washington D.C. colleagues, stood center stage Thursday night and, for the most part, dominated the proceedings.
More mainstream hopefuls such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida were left nipping at their heels and squabbling among themselves.
Trump, 69, and Cruz, 45, whom opinion polls have locked in a tight struggle to win the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, clashed at several points, befitting their leading-men status. That left little room for rivals trying to hurriedly close the gap before voting begins for real to choose the party's nominee for November's general election.
All of it left some Republicans worried that time to stop Trump, or Cruz from seizing the inside track on the nomination was evaporating and that the establishment candidates were doing little to slow either man’s momentum.
“They are digging themselves a bit of a hole,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “It’s entirely possible the final two candidates will be Trump and Cruz, and people like me will be despondent.”
New Hampshire holds its primary about a week after Iowa’s and perhaps offers the best chance for a more moderate option to surface as a prime challenger. Iowa Republicans historically tend to favor more conservative candidates.
But in New Hampshire right now, “the mainstream Republicans are as splintered and scattered as ever,” Cullen said, leaving open the possibility that Trump could win that state as well.
Indeed, there seemed to be some acknowledgement during the debate that only one more serious contender might emerge from the rest of the field. It had Christie and Rubio, both of whom hope to win New Hampshire, repeatedly locking horns.
“They know what lane they’re in and who they're fighting,” said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina, which also holds primary next month. “It’s Trump and Cruz, and the other four jockeying for some momentum.”
Trump and Cruz dominated social media mentions in the debate. And according to Google’s analytics, which tracked audience responses to the debate, Trump and Cruz came out as the winners.
“More and more, this is coming down to a two-man race. The polling, the support, it is more and more looking like it is Donald Trump and me,” Cruz said in an interview on the Fox Business Network after the debate.
“We have the resources to go the distance. And one of the things we’re seeing, more and more people are coming behind us saying, listen, you guys are the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump,” he added.
There were other signs of establishment concern even before the debate about Trump and Cruz who are both vying for support from the Tea Party movement, which advocates for smaller government and fewer taxes.
Peter Wehner, a Republican official who served in the last three Republican presidential administrations, wrote a scathing op-ed in the New York Times slamming Trump.
And Thomas Donohue, the CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, perhaps the most powerful mainstream business lobby group in America, fretted aloud in a speech in Washington Thursday morning.
Donohue called some of the rhetoric emerging from the Republican primary race was “damn serious and sometimes a little scary.”
Both Trump and Cruz have called for cracking down on legal and illegal immigration, as with Trump also advocating a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country in the wake of the Islamist militant inspired attacks last month in San Bernardino, California.
“There are voices, sometimes very loud voices,” Donohue said, “who talk about walling off America from talent and trade and who are attacking whole groups of people based not on their conduct but on their ethnicity or religion. This is morally wrong and politically stupid.”
In a shift, most of the field during the debate left Trump alone, and at times praised him, perhaps recognizing that he seems to have better tapped into the restless mood among Republican voters.
Even Trump's statements about prohibiting Muslim immigration drew a strong rebuke from only Bush, with other candidates such as Cruz and Rubio sounding notes of sympathy with Trump’s position.
Rubio, who has tried to walk a careful line between courting conservatives and the party’s more moderate elements, was the most aggressive, attacking Cruz as well as New Jersey Governor Christie.
New Hampshire's Cullen was still holding out hope that Rubio, or someone else, might still find time to take on his party’s more extreme elements. But, he lamented, “the odds are dropping.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant; editing by Paul Thomasch and Grant McCool)