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Can Rubio and Cruz disrupt Trump’s momentum?

February 29, 2016 at 8:13 PM EDT
Gwen Ifill joins Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR to discuss the latest in politics, including growing Republican concerns over Donald Trump’s ascendancy, Sen. Marco Rubio's and Sen. Ted Cruz’s strategies for Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ renewed criticism of Trump’s rhetoric and the grim future facing the GOP.
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GWEN IFILL: With the candidates busy on the trail today, it’s time for Politics Monday, with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report joining us from Florida tonight, and Tamara Keith of NPR, who is covering a Hillary Clinton event in Northern Virginia.

Welcome to you both out there on the road.

I want to start by reading in full this Mitt Romney tweet that he sent out today, pretty tough words against the likely — what is increasingly looking like the party nominee, Donald Trump.

He wrote: “It’s a disqualifying and disgusting response by @realDonaldTrump” — that his handle, of course — “to the KKK. His coddling of repugnant bigotry is not in the character of America.”

Now, Mitt Romney has been stepping up his attacks on Donald Trump during the last week or so, but it feels like this is another turning point. But then, whenever we approach a turning point, Amy, we then pass it and go somewhere else. Is this different?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: It feels like we’re still where we have always been, Gwen, which is a lot of people wringing their hands, talking about how much they dislike Donald Trump or disavow his comments or statements, and yet they don’t rally behind the alternative to Donald Trump.

And so Donald Trump continues to benefit from the fact that the field remains fractured. There’s no consensus right now about who the candidate to take on Donald Trump will be. Marco Rubio thinks it’s him. Ted Cruz thinks it’s him. And John Kasich still thinks that he can wait until March 15 and Ohio, and it will be him.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Tam, I think that Amy just nailed it, which is that she said that people are not rallying around the alternative. Maybe it’s because there are so many alternatives.

How would you characterize the depth of Republican worry about the state of affairs right now?

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: Well, I mean, I think you can see the depth of worry in that Mitt Romney has come back to the surface and he’s tweeting.

And, you know, there’s even a little Mitt Romney buzz out there, which is a sign of the worry that’s out there. You also have — it’s an interesting mix. You have some members of Congress — or at least one senator saying he’s not going to vote for Donald Trump no matter what.

And there’s sort of a growing chorus of that, at the same time that Donald Trump is gaining some endorsements, including from Senator Sessions of Alabama and Chris Christie of New Jersey.

GWEN IFILL: You were talking, of course, referring to the senator from Nebraska — at least, Amy, she was — who said that if it was a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, he would vote for neither.

Does that leave a path at all for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio?

AMY WALTER: Tuesday is going to be very interesting for both of these candidates.

Look, Ted Cruz has the most to lose here. He was banking his entire strategy on the South. He obviously came up short in South Carolina, very far short. He’s hoping for a big win in Texas, but even that is not enough. He’s also has to do — he also has to do well in a lot of these Southern states that are heavily evangelical.

But from the polling that I have seen right now, the problem for Ted Cruz is the same problem he had in South Carolina, which is evangelicals remain divided, Donald Trump gaining somewhere around 33, 35 percent of that vote. What this means is Ted Cruz comes out of March 1, instead of with a head of steam, he’s in deficit with delegates.

Rubio is in a different camp here. And he has a different strategy. March 1 isn’t as important to him. These are not the states that he needs to do as well in, was never expected to do as well in. He needs to wrap up some delegates, though. His play is really March 15, once we start getting into the winner-take-all states, places like Florida here and Ohio.

He has to win those in order to be relevant. But, really, at the bottom line, Gwen, we’re to a place right now where Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee, unless or until one person can be the alternative, or we get to a place where the vote continues to be divided, where delegates continue to be divided, and we end up with no candidate getting 50 percent of the vote.

And this is actually looking like the only or best-case scenario for people who don’t want Donald Trump.

GWEN IFILL: Tam, it’s really interesting to me to see that the endorsements that Donald Trump has gotten recently, Jeff Sessions, very conservative, Mitt — I mean, Chris Christie, not, that they would both be gathering around him. Is that just a — is that a floodgate about to open?

TAMARA KEITH: Yes, this is an interesting thing.

It’s not clear what the endorsements for Donald Trump actually mean. He’s this unconventional candidate who, it would seem, doesn’t even really need endorsements, but then these endorsements do lend a little legitimacy. They lend some credibility to this outsider candidacy.

GWEN IFILL: Tam, I want to stick with you for a moment, because people would think, to hear us talk, that we’re only talking about the Republicans.

You’re clearly at a Hillary Clinton event. And — but if you listen to Hillary Clinton and to Bernie Sanders, they also are talking about the Republicans.

TAMARA KEITH: Yes, absolutely.

Hillary Clinton is doing it in more of a veiled way. You can almost say that Hillary Clinton is trying to take something of a high road, but she’s talking about the need for love and kindness, and then sort of showing distress about the discourse on the Republican side. She says she wants to take them on.

Bernie Sanders is also being very critical of Donald Trump especially. He sent out a tweet yesterday about the KKK stuff, and it was very critical. And, interestingly, Hillary Clinton’s account then retweeted that.

GWEN IFILL: Has that ever happened before, where Hillary Clinton endorsed anything Bernie Sanders said?

(LAUGHTER)

TAMARA KEITH: Yes, you know, they often talk about their distinguished opponent.

But this is definitely an interesting situation to have her campaign retweeting his campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Having a common enemy is always handy.

Amy, which party, if we were going to say that — last week, obviously, Hillary Clinton dealt a pretty big blow to Bernie Sanders. They’re still fighting each other, dealing daily kind of juvenile blows on the Republican side. Which party is having the more consequential civil war at this point?

AMY WALTER: Well, it absolutely is the Republicans.

Listen, I feel like this is a party right now — I mean, I can almost hear the tectonic shift here. The Republican Party now is on the verge of absolutely splitting apart. And you asked about what the level of worry is among sort of Republican establishment, as they said on “Spinal Tap,” this goes to 11. OK? It is off the charts.

And I think we are going to see a Republican Party that looks, if Donald Trump is the nominee, that looks very different than a Republican Party we have seen before. I don’t doubt that we will see a Republican candidate running as a third party. This is not about — I know we have talked about Michael Bloomberg in the past. I’m talking specifically about a traditional Republican establishment conservative figure running as a third-party candidate. Wouldn’t be surprised about that at all.

The civil war has been a big part of the Republican identity for some time. These factions have been fighting each other for some time. The only thing that has kept these factions from splitting apart in the past has been the fact that Republicans are united in their dislike for President Obama.

But now that the focus is inward, instead of outward, the civil war has — is starting to take a serious toll. And I really think we’re going to see in some way, shape or form a dissolution of the Republican Party as it currently stands.

GWEN IFILL: Wow, that’s saying something. And it is interesting. We don’t hear President Obama’s name nearly as much anymore. And it used to be the common rallying cry.

Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, Tamara Keith of NPR, thank you both.

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