Donald Trump now owns the Republican party. The only question left is whether what’s left of the GOP establishment can winnow the field fast enough to take it back.
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South Carolina reveals a three-way Republican race -- with six candidates in it. Pressure will be enormous for all but Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to exit before it’s too late for the party to block Trump.
What Trump has established himself, though, cannot and should not be ignored. He has mocked, taunted and threatened the party establishment on his way to his undisputed front-runner status.
He has called his opponents corrupt, unstable, low-energy liars and losers. Just in the past week, he said President George W. Bush lied about the Iraq War and called Pope Francis “disgraceful” for questioning his faith.
Despite all that – and maybe because of it – Trump romped in Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
He’s done it by bringing the party along to his positions. Exit polls show three-fourths of South Carolina voters supporting a ban on Muslims entering the United States – a position Trump enunciated first, and stood for on his own.
He again managed to split the evangelical vote, despite coming in last among voters who preferred a candidate who “shares my values.” He ran strong across income levels, among independents as well as Republicans, and among voters who saw immigration, jobs and terrorism as the top issues.
Mostly, though, Trump has prevailed by unmooring policy from politics and making his campaign about personality (his own).
That’s not to say he doesn’t have vulnerabilities. Cruz and Rubio have shown an ability to compete with Trump on major issue areas – and, at least in South Carolina - stay in the mix for votes.
From his previous support of abortion rights to his recent embrace of a health care mandate, there are enough issues for his opponents to feast on through the spring. And, despite making Cruz’s campaign conduct a major focus in recent days, more voters said Trump ran the most unfair campaign than any other candidate.
But the dynamics don’t favor a scenario where Trump is beaten. Even if Jeb Bush and Ben Carson bow out soon, John Kasich has made clear he’s staying in through the Midwestern states that vote in early March.
Rubio and Cruz are too busy feuding to think about getting out of the way of the other. In the meantime, Trump will accumulate delegates as the realization grows that, yes, he could actually be the Republican nominee.
Trump won’t beat himself. And even the combined weight of the Republican establishment may not prove capable of beating him.