Hill Republicans push anti-Trump effort

Story highlights

  • A last ditch effort launched to get the remaining GOP candidates to work together to find one alternative to Donald Trump
  • Most Republicans in Congress won't embrace Trump as long as there is a possibility, regardless of how slim, that there's still another GOP candidate in the race that is trying to take him down
  • Trump's campaign reached out to House Speaker Paul Ryan's office Wednesday

(CNN)A day after Donald Trump's strong Super Tuesday finishes, nervous congressional Republicans grappled with how to deal with the brash billionaire's growing momentum towards winning the GOP presidential nomination.

Instead of grumbling acceptance of Trump as the presumptive nominee, a last ditch effort launched to get the remaining GOP candidates to work together so one alternative to Trump could consolidate support and rise up to beat him.
"If you don't consolidate, Trump is going to win the nomination by plurality," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, one of the loudest voices for finding a way to block Trump. "Somebody's going to have to think about combining forces here."
    Most Republicans in Congress won't embrace Trump as long as there is a possibility, regardless of how slim, that there's still another GOP candidate in the race that is trying to take him down.
    But one of a handful of Trump's supporters on the Hill, Rep Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, told CNN, "The D.C. establishment is scared to death."
    Graham, a onetime presidential candidate himself, said he was for "anybody but Trump" and could even support Sen. Ted Cruz the ultra-conservative Texan who has won four Republican contests this year but who remains deeply unpopular with his Senate colleagues. The South Carolina Republican joked just last week he could murder Cruz on the Senate floor but no one would convict him.
    But he took a major pivot Wednesday, putting his party allegiance ahead of his personal animosity.
    "Ted and I are in the same party. Trump is an interloper. I don't trust him," Graham told CNN. "I think Ted Cruz represents a form of conservatives that might be hard to sell to the general public but I do believe he is a Republican conservative."
    The problem for Republicans pushing the anti-Trump effort is that they can't agree on who the party should elevate as the most effective challenger to Trump.
    Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, a supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio, told CNN on Wednesday it was time for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, an establishment Republican who has trailed steadily in the polls, to go and allow his supporters to gravitate to other candidates who can take on Trump.
    "There is no honorable mention in the nomination. John Kasich has run a good race," Gardner said. "But the bottom line is that we need to elect a Republican who shares the values of the Republican party and that's not Donald Trump."
    There was some shrinking of the field on Wednesday after retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson issued a statement saying he didn't see "a political path forward" for his candidacy following Tuesday's results.
    Marino said he believes that top Republicans in Washington will eventually come around and work with Trump, warning they wouldn't have much choice, "the American people are fed up with it and the elected officials, if they don't grasp it, they'll be out of a job."
    In a sign that Trump recognized he needs to build bridges with establishment leaders, his campaign reached out to House Speaker Paul Ryan's office Wednesday.
    Those Republicans in competitive races where Trump is controversial are unlikely to ever back the reality star, and many rank-and-file GOP members might simply sit on the sidelines until the convention in July with the hope that there is a longshot effort to deliver the nomination to someone other than Trump.
    Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior Republican in the Senate and a Rubio supporter, raised the idea that if all the Republican candidates remained in the race it could lead to a "locked up convention." He said such a scenario could lead to other politicians being tapped for the nomination, such as the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor will give a major speech Thursday in Utah about the state 2016 presidential race.
    Those close to Romney have told CNN he won't join the race, and Hatch, who deeply praised Romney's honesty and character, acknowledged it would be difficult for the former nominee to get in now. "But if the convention's locked up, there's a possibility," he said.
    Other Republicans insisted there was still time for the race to shake out before the convention and that any member of the GOP field is better than their Democratic opponents, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
    "I still think we are a long way from there," said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri. "Not to denigrate what Donald Trump or anyone else has done up to now."
    Rubio backer Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina argued, even in the face of a disappointing Super Tuesday performance, there is still time for the Floridian to win the nomination.
    "I think that you can conclude that by the strength of our primary numbers, that the wailing and gnashing of teeth may be an overestimate of what could happen. I'm still convinced that Marco Rubio will be our nominee."
    The number three House Republican leader, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, told CNN the race is not over yet but conceded Trump "had a big night" Tuesday.
    "He's been doing well building a growing coalition but nobody is close to having enough delegates right now to be the nominee. Clearly he's got a lot of momentum."
    But Scalise said he'd back Trump against Hillary Clinton, saying if he gets the nomination, "I think it would be a very clear contrast for the country."
    One Republican who has been critical of Trump and Clinton appeared to throw up his hands at the prospect of the two facing off in a general election.
    "The Democrats appear they are about to nominate a fundamentally dishonest New York liberal. It seems inconceivable to the people of my state that the Republicans would respond to that by nominating a fundamentally dishonest New York liberal," said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.