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Republican rough ride

You know it's been a rough day for a political party when its two top leaders feel compelled to denounce racism within the ranks — as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did Tuesday. Whether that admonishment means much is another question as the person who was the focus of that concern was in the process of winning Super Tuesday fairly handily and inching ever closer to becoming a virtual lock as the party's presidential nominee.

Once again, Donald Trump demonstrated he's the 21st century equivalent of Ronald Reagan in at least one regard: his Teflon-coated resistance to gaffes, flubs and other embarrassments that might stagger traditional candidates for president. Even the recently amped-up attacks from Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (the latter having descended to a Trump-like level of name-calling in the process) had modest effect, at best: Mr. Trump took seven of 11 states on the GOP side with Senator Cruz claiming his home state of Texas, neighboring Oklahoma and a narrow victory in the Alaska caucus and Senator Rubio taking Minnesota.

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The question now is not so much whether Mr. Trump will be the Republican Party's nominee — as the candidate might say it would take a "huuuge" swing in GOP voter attitudes in the next two weeks for that outcome not to be, if not a mathematical certainty, pretty close to one — but what a Trump victory may mean for the party. That GOP leaders are already openly fretting about the impact of Mr. Trump's candidacy on "down-ballot" races (with Senator McConnell having already told fellow senators facing tough re-election battles they are welcome to go negative against Mr. Trump, if necessary) is telling.

Trump supporters will no doubt claim this is just the establishment pushing back against an "outsider" running for the highest office in the land. Certainly, the party's faithful have had little interest in traditional Republican candidates, having already dispatched Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and left Mr. Rubio in third place behind the Senate's most contentious "insider," Mr. Cruz, who occupies second. But this "insider-outsider" label seems insufficient — there also seems to be just as large rational-irrational, knowledgeable-unaware and arrogance-humility gaps among the candidates as well, and they are frightening to behold.

Still, it's difficult to decide what represents the more pathetic image — watching New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie introduce Mr. Trump after his Super Tuesday victories spouting the catch-phrase "make America great again" that he once openly mocked or seeing Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, a former Christie supporter, wash her hands of the governor and blast Mr. Trump as woefully unfit for the office. Mr. Christie may be acting in pure self-interest, but at least he's probably not deluded about it. The current "Stop Trump" movement within the GOP ranks seems to be about six months too late, whether it's cloaked in patriotism or not.

So where do traditional Republicans, movement conservatives and the party's big-money donors go now? There are no obvious choices. Surely, most will eventually climb on board the Trump campaign jet as Governor Christie and a few others have already done. They will grin and bear Mr. Trump's criticisms of the Iraq War under George W. Bush or perhaps his racist rants about Mexicans or Muslims. Some are likely to stay home while others might seek out a third party candidate. In any event, the chief beneficiary of all this splintering of the Republican Party looks likely to be Hillary Clinton, the Democrats' ultimate insider candidate who had an even bigger day on Super Tuesday than Mr. Trump, capturing seven of eleven states (including the biggest one, Texas) and looking dominant in the South. Sen. Bernie Sanders wasn't shut out, of course, but the delegate count now has the Vermont senator losing by nearly a 3-1 ratio.

Much can happen in the next month, let alone between now and November, but the Electoral College math looks good for Ms. Clinton in a matchup with Mr. Trump — and that was prior to the coming implosion within the GOP ranks. It's simply hard to believe that this November Mr. Trump can capture swing states that supported Barack Obama four years ago. Virginia? New Hampshire? Nevada? Not likely. Winning Florida is crucial for a Republican nominee — given the Obama-Romney split as a baseline, a Democrat who wins Florida could afford to lose the entire upper Midwest, including Ohio — but that may be impossible if Mr. Trump continues turning off Hispanic voters. Whatever the future holds, it's likely to lead to fundamental change in the Republican Party if not in the balance of power nationwide.

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