Mainstream Republicans fret as Trump, Cruz strengthen in presidential race

  • By James Oliphant

By James Oliphant

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Two weeks before the first contest of the 2016 presidential race, Republicans and business leaders who fear the 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 colleagues in Washington D.C., 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.

With characteristic bravado, Trump dubbed himself the winner on Friday. Speaking to 250 people at Living History Farms in Iowa, he called the debate "interesting" and said "even the pundits last night were treating me nicely." Trump told MSNBC the overnight polls showed him winning the debate, saying Cruz was "very strident" and made "inappropriate" comments.

"I don't know that he's a nice guy," Trump said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. "I think he hurt himself last night."

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 hurriedly trying to close the gap before voting begins for real to choose the party's nominee for November's general election.

"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."

Business leaders expressed concern about the direction of the party. Xenophobic views about Muslims and Latinos, fanned by Trump’s national dominance in the Republican race, risked undermining business hopes of immigration reform, for example. Rhetoric about the country’s income gap and China have also eroded prospects for business-friendly solutions on trade and tax reform, some said.

"Policy and politics in this country have become bogged down in a sort of quicksand. It’s almost like the harder we push the deeper we sink," said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation.

Dan Danner, president and chief executive officer of the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington group representing 330,000 small businesses that employ around three million people, said he was also worried.

"Small businesses probably represent every ethnic group and are more diverse than many large corporate entities. I don’t think they’re for walling us off from the rest of the world,” he said. "And small businesses vote. And they vote in much higher proportions than the overall population."

Both Trump and Cruz have called for cracking down on legal and illegal immigration. Trump has also advocated a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country after the Dec. 2 shooting deaths of 14 people in San Bernardino, California inspired by Islamist militancy.

Thomas Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is often viewed as the country's most powerful mainstream business lobby group, fretted in a speech in Washington on Thursday that the rhetoric in the Republican primary campaign was "damn serious and sometimes a little scary."

New Hampshire holds its primary about a week after Iowa’s caucuses 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.

'SPLINTERED'

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. That 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 its 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, Trump and Cruz came out 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 Fox Business Network afterwards.

Even before the debate there were signs of establishment concern 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, who worked in the last three Republican presidential administrations, wrote a scathing op-ed in the New York Times slamming Trump on Thursday.

In a shift, most of the field left Trump alone during the debate, and at times praised him. Even Trump's statements about prohibiting Muslim immigration drew a strong rebuke only from Bush, with other candidates such as Cruz and Rubio sounding notes of sympathy with Trump’s position.

New Hampshire's Cullen held 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, David Morgan, and John Whitesides; Eiting by Richard Valdmanis, Paul Thomasch, Grant McCool and Frances Kerry)

SAP is the sponsor of this coverage which is independently produced by the staff of Reuters News Agency.

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