1 week from Iowa, Republicans line up backers

Laurie Kellman
Associated Press

Washington — With only a week to go before the first votes of the 2016 presidential race, leading Republicans are waving around endorsements.

Establishment Republicans are slowly heading in billionaire businessman Donald Trump’s direction before the nation’s first contest in Iowa, largely because he’s not the combative Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Cruz was showing off his marquee endorsement from Rep. Steve King, who is influential with the most conservative Iowans. Trump on Sunday dropped another name as he played defense against charges that he’s only been a conservative for a few years.

“I am a conservative,” Trump, endorsed this week by 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, said on NBC. “And what I say to people is this: Ronald Reagan. He was a somewhat liberal Democrat, and over the years, he evolved and he became fairly conservative. Not overly, a fairly conservative Republican.”

A televised spat ensued over who’s a conservative.

“Donald Trump is not a conservative, and you need a conservative to lead the conservative party into the general election,” two-time Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said on ABC’s “This Week, touting his endorsement by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

Cruz, meanwhile, said Trump has not been conservative for long, and pointed out that he was for social causes like gay rights at some point in his life.

“They are not Iowa values,” Cruz said on Mediabuzz.

Republicans also dismissed former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a potential third-party threat, but Democrats, who could be hurt most by a Bloomberg candidacy, didn’t shrug off the prospect.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is surging against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early states, urged Bloomberg to “bring it on.”

Clinton acknowledged that Bloomberg had gotten her attention — but suggested the threat could be irrelevant.

“The way I read what he said is if I didn’t get the nomination, he might consider (running),” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “Well, I’m going to relieve him of that and get the nomination so he doesn’t have to (run).”

Clinton has been endorsed by several members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

The GOP establishment is no fonder of Trump than when he first roiled the campaign last summer with his controversial comments about immigrants and women. They say there’s still plenty of time for a more mainstream candidate to mount a serious challenge.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are all seeking to beat expectations in Iowa, then be a top finisher in New Hampshire. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is also in the mix in New Hampshire.

But Trump’s durability atop preference polls has pushed some donors, strategists and party elders to grudgingly accept the prospect of his winning the nomination.

“We’d better stop hoping for something else and accept the possibility that he’s our nominee and be prepared to rally around him if that’s the case,” said Fred Malek, a top Republican presidential fundraiser.

Much of the mainstream GOP reckoning with Trump is rooted in deep disdain for Cruz. Cruz is seen as more likely to try to upend the web of lobbyists, donors and other powerbrokers who have long wielded enormous influence in the Republican Party.

However, the establishment’s growing acceptance of Trump’s electoral prospects so far hasn’t manifested itself in tangible support for his campaign. The real estate mogul has not been endorsed by any congressional lawmakers or governors, nor are there any indications of a big wave of major donors planning to get involved with his campaign.

The most visible signs of support for Trump’s campaign in recent days have come from those who see themselves as outside the Republican establishment, such as Palin.

Liz Mair, a communications operative who is running one of the GOP’s few anti-Trump efforts, said donors affiliated with other candidates would rather let Trump beat Cruz in the early voting states than let their least-favorite senator gain momentum.

“They’d rather that he kills Cruz by winning in Iowa and New Hampshire and then try to take him down,” Mair said.

AP writers Jill Colvin, Julie Pace and Steve Peoples contributed.