Washington: Driven by its visceral loathing for its two leading presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the Republican Party's establishment has fractured into civil war less than a fortnight before the Iowa caucuses mark the start of the presidential primaries.
Critiques sharpen ahead of Iowa caucuses
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Critiques sharpen ahead of Iowa caucuses
The latest polls show an insurgent Republican and Democrat have the edge ahead of the Iowa caucuses. The campaigns now swing into full gear about a week away from the first in the US presidential nomination contest.
The National Review, once a bible of the American conservative movement, on Thursday night published an entire issue dedicated to assaulting Trump, the clear national front runner for the Republican nomination.
It gathered scathing opinion pieces from conservative commentators from around the United States and introduced them in an editorial that declared: "Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot on behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself."
In response the Republican Party's organising body, the Republican National Committee, has banned The National Review from co-hosting the next Republican debate, as had been planned.
Sean Kennedy, a conservative commentator for CNN and a veteran of several congressional campaigns, says the RNC is backing Trump only because it must. It has to play nice with the front runner because eventually it may have to defend him in a presidential campaign.
Even as one Republican faction musters its forces against Trump, others are beginning to convince themselves that they can live with him, if only out of an even more visceral hatred for the only other apparently viable contender, Cruz, who is leading polls in Iowa.
Cruz was elected to the Senate in 2012 – doubtless with an eye on the White House – and quickly made his name in the Tea Party movement not by attacking Democrats, but by attacking his own colleagues as political hacks serving vested interests.
His Republican colleagues have not forgiven him for it.
Last week Bob Dole, the former Kansas senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, told The New York Times that a Cruz nomination would be "cataclysmic" for the GOP.
"If he's the nominee, we're going to have wholesale losses in Congress and state offices and governors and legislatures.
"I don't know how he's going to deal with Congress," he said. "Nobody likes him."
Indeed a theory gaining support is that many establishment Republicans would rather lose a presidential race with Trump as nominee than win with Cruz.
"In their minds, it would be better to effectively rent the party to Mr Trump for four months this fall [northern hemisphere autumn], through the general election, than risk turning it over to Mr Cruz for at least four years, as either the president or the next-in-line leader for the 2020 nomination," national political correspondent Jonathan Martin wrote in The New York Times this week.
Reporting from Iowa, CNN's John King made the same point.
"[Establishment Republicans] have made this calculation that they believe both Trump and Cruz would be harmful to the party in the general election. But they think if it's Trump, it's just one cycle. If he loses this time, they wash their hands of him and he's gone. Ted Cruz is their nominee and hurts them, he will blame the establishment and try to run again."
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Another establishment figure and Republican strategist, Craig Shirley, told the Huffington Post: "Ultimately, the Washington establishment deep down – although they find Trump tacky or distasteful – they think that they ultimately can work with him. Deep down, a lot of people think it is an act."
Perhaps the most damaging comment about Cruz came from Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who did not endorse any candidate in the race, but told voters in his state not to support Cruz.
Hating Cruz has become something of a social media trend, complete with its own stars, like Craig Mazin, a Hollywood scriptwriter who as a college student shared a room with the future senator.
"And, you know, I want to be clear, because Ted Cruz is a nightmare of a human being," he said in a podcast. "I have plenty of problems with his politics, but truthfully his personality is so awful that 99 per cent of why I hate him is just his personality. If he agreed with me on every issue, I would hate him only 1 per cent less."
More recently he tweeted, "Getting emails blaming me for not smothering Ted Cruz in his sleep in 1988. What kind of monster do you think I am? A really prescient one?"
The establishment's problem is that its view of Trump and Cruz is not shared by its voters. Between them they command 55 per cent of the primary vote in Iowa, according to the most recent RealClearPolitics Poll average.
The other nine candidates carry the other 45 per cent between them.
This divide between what might be called the party's professional class and its constituency is even more pronounced when you look at endorsements.
Jeb Bush has gathered 51 endorsements from congressmen and senators, but just 4.8 per cent support from likely Republican voters.
Cruz has not won a single endorsement from the people who know him best, his colleagues in the Senate, but has support from 17 members of the House.
And Trump, the popular front runner? He has not secured a single endorsement from any member of either house.