Establishment turns to Rubio to stop Trump

Greg Nash

GOP lawmakers and party leaders are rushing to endorse Marco RubioMarco RubioUS abstains from UN resolution on Cuba embargo for first time Florida poll: Clinton leads Trump by 3 The media is rigging the election by reporting WikiLeaks emails MORE as the panicked Republican establishment flocks to the man it hopes can stop Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHoward Stern on women remarks: 'This is who Trump is’ Former DHS chief: This is 'no time for a rookie' as president Trump to CNN reporter: 'That's a very rude question' MORE’s “Terminator”-like march to the presidential nomination.

A crush of lawmakers and party leaders announced on Monday they’d support Rubio for president less than two days after Jeb Bush exited the race.

Rubio’s campaign touted those endorsements, as well as the thousands of supporters he attracted at campaign stops in Arkansas and Tennessee — where voters will cast ballots in the critical Super Tuesday primary on March 1— as evidence Republicans are coalescing behind him as the alternative to Trump.

“He’s the last great hope for moderate conservatives,” said GOP strategist Ryan Williams, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “There’s about to be a test of this grand theory that once the mainstream lane consolidates behind a candidate it will be enough to overtake Trump.”

Still, Rubio’s chances of stopping the real estate mogul, or even blunting his momentum before the March 1 contests, appear slim to many observers, at least as long as Ted CruzTed CruzThe media is rigging the election by reporting WikiLeaks emails The Trail 2016: An important lesson in geography Webb: The race to 270 MORE, John Kasich and Ben Carson are still in the race and dividing up support behind the front-runner.

Trump is heavily favored to win Nevada’s caucuses on Tuesday. That would mark his third consecutive victory and send him roaring into Super Tuesday as he seeks to build on his delegate lead. Going into Nevada, Trump has 68 delegates, compared to 11 for Cruz and nine for Rubio.

Twelve states, from Alaska to Massachusetts, and American Samoa will award their delegates on that day; Trump leads in the polls for most of those states.

The rest of the Republicans will be picking their spots, reallocating resources across the map and otherwise fighting for enough delegates to keep them in the game until the race turns to winner-take-all on March 15.

“Trump has the forward momentum and already has reach into those states that aren’t even on the clock yet,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

Republicans are acutely aware that stopping Trump has to happen soon.

In 2012, the contests were more spread out and allowed for less-successful candidates to remain viable for weeks between votes. But the national party condensed the primary calendar in 2016, ostensibly to make it easier for the front-runner to wrap up the nomination earlier in the cycle.

Now Trump is the front-runner, raising the pressure on the rest of the candidates to prove as early as next Tuesday that they’re capable of doing more than just notching symbolic victories behind him.

That task gets more difficult every day that Trump is in the lead, Republicans say, because voters have already begun casting ballots in several states that allow for early voting.

“The leader in the polls is harvesting votes now,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce political analyst Scott Reed.

That explains the rush by the GOP establishment to back Rubio, who on paper has had a game-changing 48 hours.

Bush, Rubio’s former mentor and chief competition for establishment Republicans, left the race after a poor showing in South Carolina on Saturday. Rubio finished second in the Palmetto State, edging Cruz, who finished a disappointing third.

That set off an avalanche of endorsements for Rubio that the campaign rolled out in succession on Monday.

Sens. Dean HellerDean HellerGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election More Senate Republicans pressure Treasury over debt-equity rules Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (R-Nev.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeReport: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas High anxiety for GOP Five takeaways from final debate MORE (R-Ariz.), Dan CoatsDan CoatsBayh missed most Armed Services Committee hearings: report GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Liberal groups urge Schumer to reject Bayh for Banking gavel MORE (R-Ind.), and Orrin HatchOrrin HatchThe holy grail of tax policy GOP lawmakers ask IRS to explain M wasted on unusable email system GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE (R-Utah), who previously supported Bush, got behind Rubio.

A contingent of House members from South Florida, all who backed Bush, announced their support for the Florida senator, as did several members of the House delegation in Nevada, where voters will caucus on Tuesday.

Former Minnesota governor and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty became an official Rubio surrogate on Monday. Minnesota will caucus on Super Tuesday, as will Arkansas, where Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced his support for Rubio.

Bob Dole, a former Bush backer who was the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, moved his support behind Rubio as well.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamTrump on primary rivals who don't back him: 'I don't know how they live with themselves' The Trail 2016: Who is really winning? Graham: GOP Senate could rein in Clinton White House MORE (R-S.C.), a fierce Trump critic who had supported the former Florida governor’s bid, didn’t endorse but advocated for a Rubio-Kasich ticket in the general election. Rubio even picked off Kasich’s Colorado co-chairman, who called him “the one man who can defeat Trump.”

Meanwhile, Rubio’s donors are telling anyone who will listen that the entirety of the Bush fundraising apparatus has kicked into high gear for the senator.

And a super-PAC that supports Rubio launched a new round of ad buys that will hit the airwaves in most of the Super Tuesday states starting this week.

Claiming momentum, the Rubio campaign quickly sought to turn the screws on his rivals. 

In a strategy memo sent to reporters on Sunday, campaign manager Terry Sullivan argued that Cruz missed his last best chance to topple Trump in South Carolina.

And he sought to pressure Kasich to get out, calling it a “three-man race” and declaring that the Ohio governor “has no path to the nomination.”

The Rubio campaign is desperate for fractured field to winnow further and stop splitting non-Trump voters. That line of reasoning has become common in Republican circles.

“Any candidate not named Rubio or Cruz that stays in the race at this point is only aiding and abetting Trump,” said former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heye.

Cruz, meanwhile, has had a terrible 48 hours and faces a reckoning on Super Tuesday.

His third-place finish in South Carolina has called into question the Texas senator’s reach among evangelicals and the strength of his vaunted ground game.

“Evangelical voters showed in South Carolina that they will vote for somebody who will advocate for them over someone who shares their values,” said R.C. Hammond, a veteran of Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign.

Influential Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace, a prominent Cruz surrogate, took to Twitter on Monday to publicly question Cruz’s strategy in dealing with Trump, and Cruz’s spokesman was forced to resign after promoting an untrue rumor about Rubio.

Cruz has long said his strategy is to do just well enough in the first contests to set him up to dominate on Super Tuesday, when his home state and others in the South will vote.

But Cruz is no lock to win in Texas, and his overall support in the Deep South is now in question.

Kasich, meanwhile, is mapping out a strategy that looks beyond March 1, indicating he’s in for the long haul, but few Republicans believe he’ll have a real impact. 

Even if the field shrinks to two or three candidates, Republicans acknowledge that Trump will remain the undisputed favorite unless the political landscape alters dramatically.

“Establishment Republicans can only hope that he will self-destruct at some point — a very unlikely proposition given that he has actually toned down his rhetoric quite a bit lately,” GOP strategist Nino Saviano said.