Republican insiders are reconciling themselves to the idea that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE won’t be exiting the stage anytime soon — and their main concern now is limiting his damage to their party.
The GOP establishment is almost universally hostile to Trump, who has soared in the 2016 polls on the back of his celebrity, his outspoken statements on immigration and trade deals, and media coverage of his antics.
Many party strategists believe Trump did himself serious damage with his recent remarks denigrating Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE’s (R-Ariz.) experiences while a prisoner of war in Hanoi, Vietnam — but there is not yet conclusive polling evidence available.
Meanwhile, Trump has made clear that he has no serious intention of reining in his rhetoric — or curbing his propensity to tweak the nose of anyone who displeases him. On Tuesday, shortly after fellow White House contender Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump-backed challenger to Cheney decried him as 'racist,' 'xenophobic' in 2016: report State Department spokesperson tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers fret over wild week of deadlines MORE (R-S.C.) had referred to the businessman as a “jackass,” Trump read out Graham’s cellphone number on live television during a campaign event in the senator’s home state.
During that appearance, Trump also called Graham “a stiff” and an "idiot,” and took shots at another critic and 2016 hopeful, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, saying he’d begun wearing glasses to make himself look smarter.
Among Washington Republicans, the hope is that voters will tire of such comments and that Trump will have to push his boat out into ever-murkier waters to continue to command attention.
“People start to get more desensitized to Trump over time,” said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. “These comments, as they get more and more ridiculous, desensitize voters. They realize he’s just being ridiculous to be ridiculous.”
Bonjean also struck an unusual comparison: “He’s the Kardashian of the Republican primary.”
A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign declined to comment for this story.
Even if Trump’s poll ratings were to fall in the wake of the McCain controversy, it looks virtually certain that he will be included in the first major televised debate, hosted by Fox News on Aug. 6.
Only the top 10 candidates in national polling will be included in the debate. For now at least, Trump is close to the very top of the polls.
This is the cause of some consternation among Republicans, though some are holding out hope that Trump’s allure will fade under the debate spotlight. They suggest other contenders, fluent in the kind of policy detail that Trump abjures, will display a more presidential timbre.
“When Donald Trump is on a stage on his own, it has a circus quality to it, or a reality show,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.
“It’s different when he’s standing there beside serious, accomplished, intelligent people. If he’s asked about how to counter ISIS, and his answer is, ‘I’m going to hit them so hard,’ that’s going to look ridiculous next to [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio or [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz or these other candidates,” Mackowiak added.
Others who favor more establishment-friendly candidates than Trump suggest the real estate mogul’s current high polling numbers are unlikely to be sustained, even over the medium term.
“Any polls taken in the early states before Halloween are going to have very little relevance to what is going to happen,” said Tom Rath, a longtime GOP operative in New Hampshire who has advised numerous past presidential contenders, including Mitt Romney in 2012. “I don’t think he has got the structure to support a candidacy.”
Trump’s campaign has pushed back against similar criticisms, noting that the candidate has paid staff in at least the first three states to vote: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Trump himself often notes that many people did not believe he would mount a presidential run in the first place and were also skeptical that he would file all relevant paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. He has done both.
And his poll numbers, backers say, suggest that Trump has tapped into something that other candidates have missed: a deep, welling resentment about the state of the nation.
Still, some veteran independent observers note that there is a long history of candidates who surge early on, only to come unstuck relatively quickly. In the last presidential cycle, businessman Herman Cain and then-Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE (R-Minn.) were both riding high at one point in the GOP primary, only for their campaigns to go nowhere.
“There are always celebrity candidates, or candidates who are the flavor of the month,” said David Yepsen, who covered the Iowa caucuses for decades for The Des Moines Register. “There is no way they are going to be the nominee, but they give voice to people who feel left out. Sometimes they make mistakes, other times they don’t hold up to the threshold-test that has to be passed.”
Yet others note that Trump’s fortune, which he says is in excess of $10 billion, gives him leeway that long-shot candidates of the past did not have.
“Herman Cain didn’t have $10 billion,” said another GOP strategist, Ford O’Connell. “Other candidates say things like ‘I’m dropping out because I don’t see a path to win.’ But they dropped out usually because they were out of money ... [Trump] can stay as long as he wants.”
That could be bad news for second-tier candidates, who are struggling for attention. And, some say, it could be a problem for the Republican Party itself.
“He is taking all the oxygen out of the room,” said Yepsen. “There is nobody able to punch through right now with messages about the economy, or foreign policy, or Hillary [Clinton].
“It is all Trump, all the time.”