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The Grand Old Party in crisis

As the Republican Party seeks an electable presidential nominee amid the current reign of public anger and hostility, it seems oblivious to the depth of its internal crisis.

The GOP is split in its allegiance and preference between billionaire celebrity Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But Mr. Trump is criticized for questionable loyalty to conservative principles, and Mr. Cruz is conspicuously despised among Senate GOP colleagues as a self-aggrandizing opportunist.

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Meanwhile, a half-dozen or more others seek to be a consensus alternative, representing what once was considered the moderate establishment center of the party. But there is no such consensus, as each one claims to be the party's only hope to regain its senses and the presidency in November.

At the outset, there appeared to be sentiment that both Messrs. Trump and Cruz were so extreme and outrageous that either would be defeated in the general election. However, a reassessment seems to be taking hold now that Mr. Trump, or even Mr. Cruz, could be elected after all, so the faithful had better get aboard if they want to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, whom they despise, in the fall.

In alarm, the National Review magazine, the once-dominant conservative voice of the late right-wing icon William F. Buckley, has published a special edition titled "Against Trump" (and is offering a free copy of it to new subscribers). In it, an army of conservative scribes sounds the rally in opposition to such apostasy.

The beneficiary among the true believers could be Mr. Cruz, who on paper at least has been more a doctrinaire ultraconservative than Mr. Trump, a one-time Democrat who marches to his own drummer, and has given plenty of money to politicians of both parties, including the Clintons.

One longtime establishment icon, however, former Republican presidential nominee and Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, has told the New York Times he would favor Mr. Trump over Mr. Cruz. Mr. Dole cited Mr. Trump's personality and talent for making deals as reasons to prefer him in terms of working with Congress.

But the party settling for either Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz would be a death blow to all the other White House aspirants hoping Republican voters in the early caucus and primaries would yet awaken to the peril facing the party. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Chris Christie especially cling to that hope.

At stake is the GOP moderate establishment as it has existed ever since the Eisenhower years. It survived the brief Barry Goldwater debacle of 1964 and all the Democratic years from John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

But a Trump or a Cruz nomination would likely solidify Democratic ranks for Hillary Clinton and even elevate the chances for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, should he emerge as the Democratic nominee. The odds in the 2016 voting would shift heavily in the Democrats' direction, even with Mr. Sanders burdened by his self-identification as a democratic socialist.

Nevertheless, ever since Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat, ultraconservative diehards have insisted that once they were able to truly mobilize their real strength in the country, and with the right nominee delivering the message, victory would be theirs.

They consoled themselves with the thought that Goldwater, for all his conservative purity, had come off as too much for the American electorate of the time. They pointed to the subsequent arrival of Ronald Reagan as putting a more acceptable face on that purity.

But neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Cruz inspires the public confidence and affection that Reagan gave to the residue of the Goldwater movement. Half a century later, the odds remain that neither man, nor the tea party and all the anger and hostility toward the Muslims, the so-called Mexican rapists, the Middle East refugees and the rest, will deliver this country to the Republican extremists now seeking to lead the Grand Old Party.

The Iowa and New Hampshire voting may seem critical at this juncture. But the opportunities in all the other state primaries and caucuses are still to come this winter and spring. They hold out at least a modicum of hope that more moderate forces in the party may yet find a way to assert their traditional common sense in the outcome.

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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