ST. LOUIS — A growing divide has emerged in the Republican Party’s unruly Presidential contest, as the race bid farewell to a once-powerful contender. On one side stands billionaire businessman Donald Trump and his allies, on the other are those who oppose him.
A day after Rick Perry, Texas’ longest-serving Governor, ended his second Republican Presidential run with a whimper, Trump marked the shake-up by embracing his role as his party’s 2016 bully on Sept. 12.
“Mr. Perry, he’s gone. Good luck. He was very nasty to me,” Trump told Iowa voters.
Perry had all but declared war on the billionaire businessman in July, calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism” who could destroy the Republican Party.
On Sept. 12, Trump’s front-running campaign was soaring while Perry’s White House ambitions were dead. And with the real estate mogul leaping ahead of the rest of the packed field, it’s likely a matter of time before he helps push another Republican candidate out of the race.
Perry was a leading voice in the anti-Trump movement, a group that has suffered in the polls as Trump’s public allies largely avoid backlash from the anti-establishment wave that made Trump the unlikeliest of Republican Presidential front-runners.
“There is no play in the playbook for where we are right now,” said John Jordan, a California winery owner and major Republican fundraiser. “Donors don’t know what to think. Nobody saw the Trump phenomenon coming.”
In still-early polls, the real-estate mogul and reality TV star has more support that the once-top-tier trio of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio combined. That has left party leaders unnerved, as Trump has made incendiary comments they fear could alienate Hispanics and women.
Bush has jabbed the businessman repeatedly on the campaign trail and through social media. He was at it again Sept. 12 while meeting with supporters in Miami.
“Mr. Trump says that I can’t speak Spanish,” Bush told the crowd in Spanish. “Pobrecito (poor guy).”
Walker, another Trump critic, has also struggled recently, particularly in Iowa, the state that kicks off the nominating race next year, where he had been considered a front-runner.
The Wisconsin Governor canceled upcoming appearances in California and Michigan to focus instead on the critical early voting Iowa and South Carolina.
On the other end of the spectrum, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, perhaps Trump’s biggest ally, declined to address the Trump effect on Perry’s exit.
“I recognize that the media enjoys seeing Republicans bicker back and forth with each other and throw rocks at each other. But I think the American people could not care less,” Cruz told reporters after addressing the same gathering of social conservatives in St. Louis that Perry shocked the night before with his announcement.
A favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, Cruz has declined to seize on Trump’s positions that would normally trigger conservative ire.
Trump favors tax increases on the rich, once supported abortion rights, gave money to Hillary Rodham Clinton and said kind things about government-run health care in other countries.
“Someone has to bring him down. … I’m not going to sit quietly by and let the disaster that is Donald Trump become the nominee,” Sen. Rand Paul told The Associated Press. “Do you want someone who appears to still be in grade school to be in charge of the nuclear arsenal?”
Perry’s Republican rivals praised him publicly and privately — and began courting his political network. Cruz said Perry did “a remarkable job as Governor” and praised him for running “an honorable campaign.”
A person close to the Cruz campaign, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity, says the fellow Texan’s camp will be “immediately” reaching out to Perry donors and supporters. “If we don’t jump in, other campaigns are going to try to,” the person said.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Boone, Iowa, Julie Bykowicz in Washington, Sergio Bustos in Miami and Will Weissert in Austin, Texas contributed.