Republican candidates vie for game-changing endorsements

Republican candidates vie for game-changing endorsements
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Fewer than 50 days before the New Hampshire primary, several Republican presidential candidates are looking for big endorsements that might make a difference in one of the most exciting presidential races in history.

Big names, including 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFormer Dem candidate says he faced cultural barriers on the campaign trail because he is working-class Former House candidate and ex-ironworker says there is 'buyer's remorse' for Trump in Midwest Head of top hedge fund association to step down MORE (R-Wis.) and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have yet to endorse in the race.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCrenshaw to Trump: 'Stop talking about McCain' Vietnam Veterans of America 'chagrined' Trump won't let McCain 'rest in peace' National Cathedral says Trump didn't need to give 'approval' for McCain funeral MORE (R-Ariz.), a favorite in New Hampshire who won the state's primary in 2008, also could be looking to endorse after Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump's intraparty feuds divide Republicans Trump's attacks on McCain exacerbate tensions with Senate GOP Republicans defend McCain amid Trump attacks MORE's (R-S.C.) decision on Monday to leave the race.

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Polls show businessman Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCummings says Ivanka Trump not preserving all official communications Property is a fundamental right that is now being threatened 25 states could see severe flooding in coming weeks, scientists say MORE, who has dominated the Republican race, with a commanding lead in New Hampshire.

The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Trump with more than double the support of Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden-Abrams ticket would be a genius media move Families of Kenyan victims seek compensation for Ethiopian Airlines crash 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio's pragmatic thinking on China The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump feuds heat up Rubio to introduce legislation to keep Supreme Court at 9 seats MORE (Fla.), his nearest competitors.  

Still, there's time for a challenger to topple Trump, especially if Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) manages to win the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

Neither Cruz nor Trump is a candidate the GOP establishment wants to embrace, leaving several other Republicans to vie for that crown.

Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are all hoping to break out in New Hampshire. 

Here’s a look at the top names who might be able to help them with an endorsement. 

Mitt Romney

The 2012 Republican presidential nominee is easily the most sought-after endorsement for establishment Republicans this cycle.

The former Massachusetts governor has said he doesn’t intend to endorse during the primaries, but that was before the rise of Trump and Cruz. 

Romney has been critical of both men, and former aides interviewed by The Hill said they could see him jumping into the contest to force a consolidation in the race behind Rubio, Bush, Christie or Kasich.

The problem is that Romney has warm relationships with all of those candidates, and former aides don’t believe he’s interested in tipping the scales in favor of one over another — at least until some natural winnowing has occurred, likely after the New Hampshire primary.

“Gov. Romney has made no secret of the fact that he thinks Donald Trump would be a disaster and he was very critical of Ted Cruz’s efforts to shut down the government,” said former Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get involved if it comes down to one of those two and a candidate he believes can win the general election.”

Paul Ryan

Republicans say Ryan should be believed when he says he doesn’t intend to endorse in the primary.

They say betting on a horse in the presidential race would complicate the already difficult task Ryan faces in corralling a rowdy and fractured caucus in the House.

Rather, Republicans expect Ryan to weigh in when he believes his leadership is needed, as he did in condemning Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country.

“It makes no sense for him to get involved. None at all,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, the communications director for the Romney-Ryan ticket in 2012. “He’ll speak out from time to time when issues arise, but he’s the elected leader of a diverse caucus. It makes more sense for him to stay neutral.”

Still, Ryan has acted out of a sense of duty to the party before. He at first resisted attempts to recruit him to be Speaker, before acquiescing under pressure. If Trump continues his stampede through the primaries, there could be similar pressure on all GOP leaders to do what they can to put an end to his candidacy.

John McCain

Graham’s exit from the race on Monday has freed up the GOP’s 2008 nominee to take his support elsewhere and potentially assist in foiling the hopes of Cruz, who he has called a “wacko bird.”

McCain, who has won New Hampshire in two presidential primaries, will make a strong surrogate for someone in that state. He campaigned hard for Graham there, despite the long odds Graham faced.

McCain brings instant credibility among veterans and establishment-minded Republicans alike.

“It’s hard to know if he’s a great endorsement in this era of strong anti-establishment sentiment,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “But he brings an aura of competence and he’s someone that a lot of mainstream Republicans have confidence in.”

Former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu

Don’t expect Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSchultz recruiting GOP insiders ahead of possible 2020 bid Bottom Line US, allies must stand in united opposition to Iran’s bad behavior MORE (R-N.H.) to take sides in the presidential race — she needs as many allies as she can get ahead of a tough reelection fight in 2016.

That means the last unaffiliated big name in the state is Sununu. However, he has ties to several of the establishment candidates, and political watchers are unsure whether he’ll cast his lot with one of those ahead of the primary.

“That’s the problem on the establishment side,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “If these folks want to make a difference by endorsing someone, they’ve got a tough choice to make.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

A Haley endorsement might not have a huge effect in New Hampshire but would be a game-changer in South Carolina, which will hold its GOP primary after New Hampshire.

Still, Haley is considered a possible vice presidential candidate, so it makes more sense for her to stay neutral for now.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

Like Haley, Graham's endorsement will mean more in his home state of South Carolina.

Still, Graham has spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, and while he doesn't have too much to show for that effort in polls, his endorsement could be of help to one of the candidates that was left. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Walker crashed and burned as a GOP candidate for president. 

At the beginning of the year, he was in the top tier. After the second debate in September, he was gone. 

Yet Walker remains someone widely respected by Republicans across the country. He also has a reputation as a conservative fighter and would be a welcome surrogate for any campaign.

If Walker were to choose to endorse Rubio, for example, it could give the Florda senator a boost from the right as he is battling Cruz for conservatives as well as the remaining establishment candidates.