GOP establishment worries about Cruz-Trump showdown

Updated 9:50 PM EST, Mon December 14, 2015
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Story highlights

Ted Cruz has overtaken Donald Trump in recent Iowa polls

Neither man is the favorite of the Republican establishment but they are pulling away from the other contenders

Watch the CNN Republican debate Tuesday, December 15 at 6:00 p.m. ET and 8:30 p.m. ET.

(CNN) —  

Call it the Republican establishment’s nightmare scenario.

The GOP establishment, confronted by a recalcitrant electorate that refuses to leave Donald Trump, is being forced to take a fresh look at Ted Cruz, a man with grassroots strength in key early primary states and few friends in Washington.

Suddenly, the Republican Party’s best hope could be a man hell-bent on transforming it: a senator who openly spars with fellow GOP colleagues, and has campaigned by painting its leaders as spineless and feeble.

READ: Poll: Clinton beating Trump, Cruz but not Rubio

Headed into Tuesday’s CNN Republican presidential debate, Cruz and Trump have turned Iowa into a two-man race, with the Texan leading in two new polls. Cruz is up 31% to Trump’s 21% among likely GOP caucus-goers, according to the Bloomberg Politics-Des Moines Register poll released Saturday. A Fox News poll Sunday has Cruz leading Trump 28% to 26%.

A small and growing number of Republicans allied with the establishment – the force long thought to quickly consolidate against a surging Cruz bid – are coming to terms with the idea that he may be palatable in an election cycle where Trump has pushed the envelope well beyond what they considered acceptable.

“Oh God, yes,” said Ed Rogers, a top Republican lobbyist, when asked if he’d prefer Cruz. “Compared to Trump, he’s OK.”

Read: Stage set for final GOP debate of 2015

Establishment Republicans had enough of a problem when Trump began his populist-fueled move to the top of national polls, where he has stubbornly remained for five months. But Cruz’s steady rise means that even if Trump were taken out by a well-financed negative campaign, they might have to deal with a stronger Cruz, who has more political polish than the more improvisational Trump.

“If you talk to my peers around town, collectively it’s an appreciation the guy is smart as hell,” explained a senior Washington Republican who is backing another candidate. “He can be a more acceptable alternative to Trump, if it comes to that.”

The irony hasn’t escaped them. Said the Republican: “It’s an interesting life – and everything’s relative.”

Most establishment Republicans have been drawn to the half-dozen candidates who come from that wing of the party, especially Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has lived in the mid-teens in most polls, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has dropped down to 3% nationally. But given Cruz’s surging poll numbers and Trump’s remarkable political durability, some wonder if it could be Cruz that emerges as the compromise candidate.

“The second he starts to look like a winner in Washington,” Rogers said, “he’s going to have a bunch of new friends.”

It’s a dilemma swatted away on Capitol Hill – perhaps optimistically.

Asked about choosing Trump or Cruz, 2008 nominee Sen. John McCain would only allow that they are “smart people.” Bush backer Sen. Susan Collins would just offer that they are “obviously not my choice.”

And there’s no guarantee either one can beat Hillary Clinton.

“He’s not as outrageous as Trump, but I don’t know that he’s any more electa