Republicans eyeing 2020 struggle with Trump
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Republicans seen as possible 2020 White House hopefuls are scrambling to decide how to handle Donald TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE.

The GOP nominee’s 2005 comment about grabbing women without their consent has thrown the party into a tailspin, with more than two-dozen lawmakers withdrawing their support even as Trump pledged open warfare on his critics. 

Now, the question of how close Republicans should stick to Trump in the final stretch of the tumultuous 2016 campaign is dividing potential 2020 candidates. 

Some have pulled their support or called for Trump to cede his spot to his running mate, Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceWhere 2020 Democrats stand in betting markets ahead of first debate President Trump fighting to fix a broken trade system at the G-20 Trump rules out Haley joining 2020 ticket MORE, as they try to distance themselves from their nominee. Others are standing by Trump and hoping to curry favor with his legion of supporters, whose support they’ll need to win a future GOP primary. 

Here’s how the potential 2020 field is walking the Trump tightrope so far.

 

Mike Pence 

Before the Indiana governor was Donald Trump's running mate, he often criticized and disagreed with the businessman's policy positions. 

From Trump's Muslim ban to his comments on abortion and attacks on a federal judge, Pence routinely spoke out against the GOP nominee before landing a spot on his ticket. 

"Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional," Pence tweeted in December, when Trump initially called for the ban. 

Pence endorsed Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhite House to convene social media summit after new Trump attacks GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats O'Rourke on Senate bid backer Beyoncé: I will have to 'earn her support' for 2020 MORE during the primary but also gave a shoutout to Trump, saying he had “given voice to the frustration of millions of working Americans.”

As Trump's running mate, Pence is now often in the position of explaining and downplaying Trump's controversial comments.

When Trump called on Russia to "find" 30,000 emails Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again Don't expect Trump-sized ratings for Democratic debates Ocasio-Cortez on Biden: 'I think that he's not a pragmatic choice' MORE deleted from her private email server, Pence warned the Kremlin not to interfere in U.S. elections. 

When Trump unleashed a slew of attacks on a Gold Star family that criticized him at the Democratic National Convention, Pence praised their son who died in the Iraq War as an "American hero." 

And he came down hard on Trump when the The Washington Post released the 2005 audio of him bragging about sexually assaulting women. 

"I do not condone his remarks and I cannot defend him," Pence said. 

But just days later, amid the growing feud between Trump and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBooker prepping for first 2020 debate with bicep curls Democratic debates: What the top candidates need to do Paul Ryan praises Trump: 'He's not taking any crap' MORE (R-Wis.), Pence indicated he is siding with the top of his ticket. 

“Paul Ryan is my friend but, yeah, I respectfully disagree with his focus in this campaign,” Pence told NBC News on Tuesday. 

 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Mellman: Are primary debates different? Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court MORE 

As his unsuccessful presidential bid came to an end in March, a visibly frustrated Rubio sparked speculation that he wouldn’t back Trump, telling MSNBC while he “intends” to support the party’s choice, it’s “getting harder every day.” 

Ultimately Rubio stuck with his pledge to support the nominee, and Trump — who had nicknamed him “little Marco” during the primary — urged the Florida Republican to run for reelection. 

But Rubio has since tried to maintain a safe distance from Trump as he runs for another term in a battleground state where Clinton is currently leading. He skipped his party’s convention in Cleveland this summer after initially indicating he would attend. 

This week, a source told the Miami Herald that Rubio “will not be going to any presidential campaign events” for Trump or Pence in the four weeks left before Election Day.  

Though Rubio disavowed Trump’s 2005 remarks, he reiterated on Tuesday that he is still backing his party’s nominee because he believes the election is a binary choice. 

“I wish we had better choices for president. But I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next president,” he said in a statement. 

 

Sen. Ted Cruz 

More than any other potential 2020 contender, the junior senator from Texas has stoked speculation about a future White House bid. 

Cruz refused to endorse Trump for months after their bitter primary fight — which included insults about the candidates’ wives and a conspiracy theory that Cruz’s father was linked to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. 

But his decision drew scrutiny from some of his Senate colleagues and donors, who said he was putting his own interests before the party. 

That frustrated boiled over following his convention speech, in which he failed to endorse Trump in primetime and sparked talk of a primary challenge from Rep. Michael McCaul or former Gov. Rick Perry. 

Trump has fed speculation that Cruz could be defeated when he’s up for reelection in 2018. He pledged to start a super PAC to beat him and said at a fundraiser that Perry would “do well” if he decided to run for Senate. 

Unable to shake the criticism as Trump saw a rise in the polls, Cruz shocked some of his supporters and endorsed on Sept. 23. 

“By any measure Hillary Clinton is wholly unacceptable — that’s why I have always been #NeverHillary,” he wrote on Facebook.

He went a step further in early October and phone banked at local office for Texas Republicans, though he did not mention the GOP ticket despite sitting in front of Trump-Pence signs as he told voters to “come out and vote.”

Only a few days later, Cruz joined his colleagues to disavow Trump’s 2005 remarks, calling them “disgusting and inappropriate.” 

Sources close to Cruz initially said he was reconsidering his support for Trump, but the Texas Republican squashed speculation that he would reverse course. 

"I am supporting the Republican nominee because I think Hillary Clinton is an absolute disaster," he said Monday. 

 

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonUS officials express optimism negotiations with Iran possible Cotton: 'Healthy skepticism warranted' when dealing with Democrats on immigration Cotton: I hope Trump's statement 'got through' to Iran's leaders MORE

The Arkansas Republican tried to stay above the fray of the GOP primary, refusing to endorse a candidate. 

But Cotton — who has been on GOP leaders' radar for years — signaled early on that he would support Trump if he won the nomination. 

He also garnered speculation as a potential vice presidential pick. Trump briefly helped feed the VP talk, telling Hugh Hewitt that the Arkansas senator is “high on the list for something.” 

While he wasn’t offered the spot, the 39-year-old Army veteran continues to build a national profile. 

He spoke at the Republican National Convention and has been traveling to early voting states, campaigning this month with Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Senate Finance leaders in talks on deal to limit drug price increases Million-dollar drugs pose new challenge for Congress MORE (R-Iowa) and speaking at Iowa party fundraisers. 

Cotton distanced himself from Trump in the immediate wake of the 2005 tape, saying in a statement that Trump should “pledge to finally change his ways” or step aside as the party’s nominee. 

But after Trump’s video apology and his performance at Sunday’s debate, Cotton softened his stance while noting to a local radio station that he “wouldn’t criticize or attack anyone for the legitimate change of conscience.” 

“The best he can do now is to change his ways today and also try to bring change to Washington,” he added, according to the Independent Journal Review. 

 

Speaker Paul Ryan 

Trump and his chief GOP foe — who was the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee — have a rocky history. 

Ryan has criticized Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country and called his attacks on a Hispanic federal judge “textbook racism.” 

When the Wisconsin Republican withheld his endorsement of Trump until May, the GOP nominee retaliated by waffling over supporting Speaker in a relatively noncompetitive primary. The mutual endorsements smoothed the waters for just a brief period.

The Trump-Ryan relationship went off the rails after the 2005 tape surfaced. Ryan blasted his party’s standard-bearer, saying he was “sickened” by his vulgar comments. 

He revoked Trump’s invitation to a Saturday Wisconsin GOP campaign event and told House Republicans that while he was not un-endorsing Trump, he would no longer defend him. 

Signaling that his focus now is on Republicans keeping control of the House, Ryan told GOP lawmakers on Monday: “You all need to do what’s best for you in your district” when it comes to the GOP nominee.  

Trump effectively declared war on Ryan, blasting “disloyal” Republicans on Twitter and calling the Speaker a “very weak and ineffective leader.” 

On Tuesday, he continued by suggested Ryan had been too critical of him and floating to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that if he wins the White House, Ryan might not be Speaker of the House. 

The distance between the top of the presidential ticket and the top House Republican appears to be vast with under four weeks until Election Day. 

 

Sen. Ben Sasse

An original founder of the Senate’s small “Never Trump” movement, the relationship between the Nebraska senator and Trump soured in early 2016 and never recovered. 

When Sasse fired off a string of tweets questioning Trump’s previous political positions, the businessman hit back on Twitter, saying the Nebraska senator “looks more like a gym rat than a U.S. senator”  and questioning “how the hell” he got elected. 

Sasse fired back in February, writing on Facebook that if Trump won the nomination, “my expectation is that I will look for some third candidate — a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”  

His stance landed him in hot water back in Nebraska. 

Delegates at the state GOP convention passed a resolution noting the party would strongly oppose any effort by Republican elected officials to “encourage a third party candidacy for President of the United States because this would result in the election of Democrat Hillary Clinton.” 

Despite the pushback, Sasse didn’t back down. 

After the Senate GOP conference held a closed-door meeting over the summer with Trump, a Sasse spokesman called the election a “dumpster fire.”

And with Friday’s revelation from The Washington Post, Sasse quickly called on Trump to drop out of the race, saying, “He can still make an honorable move. Step aside [and] let Mike Pence try.”