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Detouring the Trump and Clinton steamrollers

The Wisconsin primaries in both parties put holds on the expectations of presidential frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump -- especially the latter, whose bubble has been significantly deflated.

Mr. Trump's supposedly inevitable Republican nomination plunged into a ditch in the Badger State with his 13-point loss to Sen. Ted Cruz. Yet it hardly signaled a joyous embrace of the Texas conservative extremist by the party establishment.

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What it did demonstrate was the wisdom of 2012 party nominee Mitt Romney in counseling fellow Republicans to join an anybody-but-Trump strategy, which got a huge boost from the celebrity tycoon's own loose and errant tongue.

Mr. Trump's comment about punishing women for having abortions illegally, along with his smears of Mr. Cruz's wife, Heidi, and his campaign manager's arrest on a charge of battery against a female reporter, made him about as popular among the female persuasion as Jack the Ripper.

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Looking ahead to the New York Republican primary in less than two weeks, Mr. Trump can recover by winning most of the state's 95 convention delegates. However, 81 of them will come from the 27 congressional districts on a proportional basis, suggesting a split outcome. Mr. Trump currently leads Mr. Cruz by more than 200 bound delegates, and the question now is whether there is much prospect for growth in light of his dismal performance last week.

As for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, now nearly 700 delegates ahead of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, she looks to her adopted home state more for satisfaction than resurrection. Mr. Sanders in his Wisconsin victory harped on "momentum" as a sign of his still possible if unlikely surge to overtake her.

Noting his string of six successes in the last seven state primaries and caucuses -- and his superior fund-raising with an average contribution of $27 from individual donors, compared to Ms. Clinton's reliance on corporate givers -- Mr. Sanders made clear his campaign would go all the way to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.

For a campaign season that for so long drew the heaviest media attention to Mr. Trump's unorthodox persona and antics, Mr. Sanders's steady rise, after surviving a dismal stretch in the Southern primary states, has begun to capture the spotlight.

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Mr. Trump, after methodically disposing of more than a dozen unimpressive challengers with his insults and take-no-prisoners game plan, appears to have reached the public's limit of toleration. As for Mr. Cruz, more than any agenda of his own, his candidacy has been the beneficiary of the belated stop-Trump effort.

Some old establishment GOP leaders like former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson tried during the primary to rally Republicans to the stalled candidacy of Ohio Gov. John Kasich. But Mr. Kasich gained no traction despite the fact that he ran a distinctly positive, un-Trump-like campaign, and he continues to resist pressures to drop out.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Ms. Clinton appears to be a steady path to the nomination in delegate accumulation. But Mr. Sanders's grit, remarkable fund-raising and crowd-building have finally drawn more news media attention, enabling him too to press on.

Pointedly more policy-driven than the Republican circus dominated by carnival barker Mr. Trump, the Democratic debate nevertheless has also begun to send off sparks, with Ms. Clinton saying she is "sick of" Mr. Sanders misrepresenting her positions.

After days of jockeying over scheduling a debate in New York, one finally has been set on CNN in Mr. Sanders's native Brooklyn six days before the primary. It should be a heated affair, yet both camps seem determined to maintain sufficient decorum to assure party unity in the November election.

Up to now, the 2016 campaign has clearly been a nightmare for the Grand Old Party, compared to a relatively sedate waltz for the Democrats. So it is distinctly to the advantage of the Dems to maintain a less combative course between now and convention time, as the Republicans face fireworks in July, with their growing likelihood of a contested and brokered convention in Cleveland.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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