Tuesday, March 15, 2016

TOP STORY >> Huckabee, Rubio — now what?

Leader executive editor

Donald Trump, the billionaire real-estate developer and entrepreneur with a checkered past and raucous political rallies, is rapidly moving toward the Republican presidential nomination with a string of primary victories yesterday and on Super Tuesday.

As expected, Trump knocked Sen. Marco Rubio out of the race after a humiliating loss in Florida. Hillary Clinton should now cruise to her nomination after defeating Sen. Bernie Sanders in five states Tuesday. He, too, must be thinking about quitting.

Arkansas politicians who endorsed Rubio for president are rethinking their preferences again after favorite son Mike Huckabee fell flat even before the first round of primaries.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Republicans when the presidential season kicked off last summer. State officials had hoped Huckabee would win Arkansas’ Super Tuesday primary — the date was moved up long ago in hopes it would benefit the former governor — but Huckabee’s ill-fated run faded quickly as Trump scooped up evangelical voters in the early primaries and had no trouble winning in Arkansas.

Huckabee’s carefully worded endorsement of Trump in Arkansas may have helped the frontrunner, who is said to have Huckabee on a short list of possible running mates, along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (Sen. John McCain’s running mate in 2008) and Dr. Ben Carson, who has dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson was among the first to endorse Rubio after Huckabee dropped out. Other Arkansas officials who endorsed Rubio include Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin; state Auditor Andrea Lea; U.S. Reps. Steve Womack (R-Rogers) and Rick Crawford (R-Jonesboro), along with the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate.

Rep. French Hill (R-Little Rock) has not made an early endorsement, maybe because he’s a former banker and knows how to count: Trump has had a huge lead in the polls for months and is well ahead in the race for delegates.

Arkansas officials must now decide if they want a brokered convention to stop Trump from getting the nomination. They could endorse either Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Ohio Gov. John Kasich, although it’s probably too late, or throw their support behind the flamboyant businessman, who is remaking the party into a white nationalist movement 36 years after Ronald Reagan insisted the party would thrive only if it became more inclusive.

No wonder traditional Republicans, including those in Arkansas, are nervous as they watch Trump’s often-rowdy rallies turn violent, which are certain to drive black and Hispanic voters from the party and into the arms of the Democratic nominee.

Rubio, once the future hope of the Republican Party, called it quits only weeks after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush abandoned his misbegotten campaign. Bush and Rubio will probably rally around Kasich, who easily won his home state yesterday. But the race is now down to Clinton and Trump.

Prominent Republicans around the country are saying they will not support Trump. Many of them have said they’re no longer Republicans.

Mike Jackson, chairman of AutoNation, the large chain of car dealerships based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., sounded downbeat just hours before his state’s primary.

“The unthinkable is about to happen in the home state of a very popular former governor, Jeb Bush, who is now out of the race,” Jackson said. “A sitting senator who won election with very strong numbers is about to be defeated by Donald Trump for winner take all, 99 delegates.”

The fight will continue perhaps until the Republican convention in Cleveland, but long after the presidential election is over, GOP elders will ask themselves who stole their party and how will they ever get it back.