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Is GOP establishment learning to like Donald Trump?

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Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) Donald Trump speaks to a crowd on Jan. 4, 2016, in Lowell, Mass. Thousands attended the rally in packed Paul E. Tsongas Center Arena at the Lowell campus of the University of Massachusetts.

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Is the Republican establishment – or at least some of it – coming to terms with the possibility that Donald Trump will be the GOP presidential nominee?

A number of signs in recent days indicate that’s the case. Or, to be more specific, there’s evidence that when weighing Mr. Trump versus rival Ted Cruz, many Republican leaders think Senator Cruz the greater danger. That’s an implicit admission that they’re beginning to think Trump might not be, you know, so bad.

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Let’s go to the list: Earlier this month, right-leaning New York Times columnist David Brooks unloaded on Cruz, saying the Texas senator’s speeches are full of a sort of “pagan brutalism.” Since then, two former Republican Senate majority leaders, Trent Lott and Bob Dole, have indicated they think a Cruz nomination would be cataclysmic for the GOP and lead to widespread losses down the ticket.

Then this week, the Republican governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, said flatly that he hopes anyone but Cruz wins his state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. True, Governor Branstad cited Cruz’s opposition to ethanol subsidies, crucial to Iowa’s economy, as the reason for his opposition. But the open and vehement nature of the anti-endorsement indicated a high level of political enmity.

“It is no surprise that the establishment is in full panic mode,” Cruz told reporters after hearing of this news.

Why does this imply anything about Trump? Well, the Iowa caucuses are now less than two weeks away. The New Hampshire primary is within three. The primary season moves quickly through South Carolina and other states after that. If the Republican Party as an entity is to exert influence on the nominating process, now is the time.

Many have expected Republican leaders to band together against Trump, given that some party figures see him as an existential threat to the GOP in its current form. That doesn’t seem to be occurring.

“The sort of GOP effort against Trump that many anticipated is happening instead vs. Cruz,” tweeted Sunlight Foundation political analyst Richard Skinner on Thursday.

Yes, this description of the state of play is a bit simplistic. The Republican establishment is not a cohesive entity chaired by the ghost of Nelson Rockefeller. Many GOP journalists and public intellectuals continue to worry that Trump, with his belligerent populism, will push the party so far from its small-government roots that it will become unrecognizable.

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“What we’re seeing is the attempt at the normalization of Trump on the right, and defining conservatism down. Can be resisted and defeated,” tweeted right-leaning Weekly Standard editor William Kristol earlier this week.

But the fact remains that the legislative, Washington wing of the party now seems inclined to cut Trump slack. Mr. Dole, the party’s nominee in 1996, said in a New York Times interview that Trump could probably work with Congress, because “he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a dealmaker.”

It may be as simple as that. Trump, for all his insults, is the kind of person members of Congress understand. He’s a businessman who knows that deals aren’t all one-sided, and a political neophyte who would be willing to defer to their judgment. That’s the theory, anyway.

Cruz? He’s proved that the only legislative opinion he listens to is his own, in the view of the establishment. Many in the GOP believe he pushed them into the 2013 government shutdown and then blamed their lack of courage for the shutdown’s inevitable collapse.

Consider this: Back in the 2008 campaign, questions arose about whether nominee John McCain was a “natural born citizen,” and thus eligible for the presidency under the Constitution, because he was born in the Canal Zone. The Senate quickly moved to pass a nonbinding resolution affirming Senator McCain’s citizenship. When Cruz became embroiled in the same question, because of his Canadian birth, that did not happen.

“I just don’t think the Senate ought to get into the middle of this,” said majority leader Mitch McConnell of the issue on ABC News’s “This Week” earlier this month.

Does the GOP establishment think it can block Cruz, then turn to oppose Trump and boost someone else? Maybe, but it’s getting late to pull off that kind of maneuver. Trump may rocket through the first primaries, and then, who could head him off? Jeb Bush? (Hey, he’s at 10 percent in some New Hampshire polls!)

Are GOP figures counting on influencing someone who’s not that easy to push around? Sure, Trump knows little about the day-to-day operation of government. That doesn’t mean he’ll be Silly Putty in Senator McConnell’s hands. He’s a billionaire with little vested interest in the party per se.

“He might well completely ignore Congress’s wishes and just do whatever feels right to him on any given day. Trump’s primary goal over the past several decades has been to enhance the Trump name. What policies that translates into is anyone’s guess,” writes Seth Masket at Vox.

Or does the party leadership still think that somehow or other, without its involvement, Trump is just going to lose?