US Election 2016: Republican mainstream starts to sweat as Donald Trump goes to Iowa looking unbeatable

A ‘serious’ frontrunner was supposed to have emerged by now, but as David Usborne reports from Des Moines, nothing seems to be going according to plan

The beacon-red background of the electronic billboards casts a glow on the snow banks beneath them. Overlaid in white writing is one of the pithier statements to emerge from this year’s madcap Republican nomination contest: “‘Donald Trump is unhinged’ – Jeb Bush.” All that’s missing, maybe, is “Amen”.

But is he? On Thursday night, just days before voters will kick off the process of finally picking a presidential nominee with Monday’s Iowa caucuses, Trump pulled his riskiest gambit yet, refusing to participate in a final debate between the Republican candidates because of hurt feelings about one of the moderators and instead held an event that raised $6m for veterans.

It made for a strange split-screen night. For voters who chose to watch the debate, hosted by Fox, it was a chance finally to gauge the rest of the field without the overwhelming presence of The Donald, and for party elders to glimpse who among them might best challenge him down the road. “I kind of miss Donald Trump,” quipped Jeb Bush, the former Florida Governor. “He was a teddy bear to me.”

The Bush billboards, paid for by an outside Super-PAC support group and effectively asking Iowans to come to their senses, have sprung up along highways across the state. Bush made the remark questioning Trump’s sanity after the property tycoon’s call in December for a halt to all Muslim immigration. 

Yet the elders of the Republican Party are every bit as exasperated. Trump not only survives every kerfuffle he creates, he thrives on them. He is leading the polls in every state at the front end of the nominating process. Only in Iowa might that lead be at risk: his biggest threat is the one candidate the party establishment likes even less, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Desperate for someone to rise quickly from further down the field and save the day, they are eyeing Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.  

With every groan and moan about Trump, from the top of the party and from some in the media, there is a degree of cluelessness about his popular appeal. Clearly, he has tapped into something, a fury among rank and file Republicans precisely at the party elite and in particular their failure to do anything more than jabber about illegal immigration, which they see as explaining their lost jobs or depressed wages. The party experienced a mini-rebellion in 2010 when the Tea Party surfaced and sent a wave of new members of Congress all vowing to pull membership to the right, shrink the size of the federal government and cut the Democrats and President Barack Obama down to size. But little changed, making them crosser still.

Cruz on Trump - I'm a maniac. And everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly.

Maybe we in the journalism business were initially clueless too. How quaint a conversation between this reporter and a Washington Post colleague, at a rally launching the Bush campaign in Miami last June, now seems. We had just received word of a Trump press conference the next day in New York. Could he possibly be declaring for president? We agreed he probably was, before getting back to what we thought more important, reporting on Bush. He would be unstoppable, Trump a mere distraction.

Who’s unstoppable now? Some still say Trump got into the race to serve his narcissism and that one day he will step aside again, declaring: “Well, that was fun.” But he surely understood the power of his run from the very beginning. It was at that first press conference in his own Trump Tower that he branded illegal Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists”. He knew who he was talking to. 

Among those laughing – at the elite and us – is Rush Limbaugh, a radio loud-hailer for the right for three decades. “Trump is so far outside the formula that has been established for American politics that people who are inside the formula can’t comprehend it,” he said this week, calling the decision to spurn Thursday’s debate in Des Moines one more Trump masterstroke.

That remains to be seen. Nothing in this most tumultuous of election seasons will come clear until the first votes are cast. After Iowa on Monday comes New Hampshire, which holds its primary on 9 February. Soon after that the circus will move to South Carolina and Nevada. 

Those terrified of Trump have not given up yet. No fewer than 22 conservative commentators this week offered their own treatise of opprobrium in the pages of their favourite periodical, the National Review. The one-time reality show bully was, they averred, nothing more than “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the [party] in favour of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones”.

The same forces would similarly like to derail Cruz, who has practised scorched-earth politics since being elected to the US Senate in 2012, against not just Washington but his own party. Not only do they loathe Cruz, they fancy he’d be even more of a disaster come the general election.

So to Rubio, the senator from Florida and a one-time protégé of Bush. (They can’t abide one another today.) He is boyish at 44 and while most of his rivals have adopted the Trump strategy of channeling and thus reinforcing the anger of the electorate he has mostly remained sunny on the trail, though, it is true, a little less so of late. 

With Trump absent, Rubio and Cruz became the joint focus of attention at Thursday’s debate. They tangled furiously, notably on immigration, each accusing the other of having once favoured giving people living illegally in the country a path to establishing legal residency and then changing their minds when conservatives rebelled at the idea. “This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” Rubio exclaimed. “That he’s the most conservative guy.”

It may be Mr Rubio’s hope that Mr Trump actually prevails here and thus keeps Mr Cruz down in second place. He knows that while he is unlikely to peel many of Mr Trump’s supporters away, followers of Mr Cruz could be his if the Texan falters.

But things may not work out so neatly in the longer run. With Mr Trump far ahead in New Hampshire polls, the contest for second place there is more competitive with Mr Cruz, Mr Bush, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, and Mr Rubio all seemingly bunched together for now. And in recent days, Mr Rubio has been clobbered by an avalanche of especially harsh negative advertising spots from all of his rivals.  He can only hope that will mean his metal will have been be proved if he fares well here on Monday. 

“If he can withstand all of that and be the mainstream alternative, that’s a pretty powerful position to be in,” Doug Gross, who worked for Mr Romney campaign in 2012 told Politico. “I think he’s in a position potentially to finish a strong third in Iowa, and if he does, he becomes the mainstream Republicans' consensus alternative to Trump and Cruz going into New Hampshire, and that's a strong position to be in. If he's a strong third in Iowa, I really think he's likely going to be our nominee.”

But in this election it is hard to distinguish between wisdom and wishful thinking. Maybe Rubio really is the tortoise to watch. And we know that he is the Republican most Democrats fear most.  But before any of this can happen, all those who have flocked to Mr Trump, and watched him on Thursday and not the debate, will have to heed what it says up on those billboards. And give a fig.

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