Fearful of a Donald Trump nomination to lead the GOP, conservative leaders huddled privately in Washington on Thursday in search of a plan to stop the billionaire businessman. His Republican rivals braced for another Trump victory next week, this time in delegate-rich Arizona.
The GOP has an eager alternative in Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, yet some party leaders are exploring "other avenues" instead of rallying behind the fiery conservative, an ominous sign that Republican leaders' deep dislike of Cruz complicates their overwhelming concern about Trump.
"The establishment is like a wounded animal, now cornered," said Mark Meckler, an early leader in the tea party movement. "They are terrified, irrational and flailing wildly."
Even after being denied victory in five contests Tuesday, Cruz insists he still has a path to the 1,237 delegates necessary to claim the Republican presidential nomination. But in a strategy memo obtained by The Associated Press, his campaign essentially cedes Arizona's March 22 primary to Trump and acknowledges Cruz must win 79 percent of the remaining delegates before the GOP's July national convention.
"This is the moment for all those who believe in a strong America to come together and craft a new path forward," Cruz declared on Twitter while conservatives were meeting in downtown Washington to brainstorm ways to stop his party's front-runner.
Organizers of the meeting included conservative commentator Erick Erickson and Christian conservative leader Bob Fischer. The goal, as stated in the invitation, was "to strategize how to defeat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, and if he is the Republican nominee for president, to offer a true conservative candidate in the general election."
The group released a statement after roughly four hours behind closed doors calling for a "unity ticket that unites the Republican Party."
While many in the room supported Cruz, they declined to endorse the Texas senator or the only other remaining presidential contender, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and instead urged all former Republican presidential candidates to unite against Trump. They also embraced the possibility of a contested convention.
"Lastly, we intend to keep our options open as to other avenues to oppose Donald Trump," they said, an apparent reference to a possible third-party candidacy that might stop Trump but would likely sacrifice the Republican Party's chances in the general election to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
On Capitol Hill, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he'd help Cruz raise campaign cash in the hope of stopping Trump's march.
Graham, who dropped his own presidential bid last month, called Cruz "a reliable Republican." That was a sharp shift from Graham's recent statement comparing the choice between Trump and Cruz to "the difference between poisoned or shot — you're still dead."
Amid the Republican chaos, Democratic front-runner Clinton focused on fundraising as her campaign begins to look ahead to the general election. She claimed a fifth victory in Tuesday's primaries, as rival Bernie Sanders conceded defeat in Missouri.
However, Sanders continued to campaign aggressively ahead of contests next Tuesday in Arizona and Utah.
Arizona residents are far more likely to see commercials for Sanders than for any other candidate in either party, advertising tracker Kantar Media's CMAG shows. Though trailing badly in delegates, he is spending about $1.8 million on Arizona ads, triple Clinton's media plan.
On the Republican side, so far only Cruz is advertising in the state, a relatively light $256,000, but he got a boost from an allied super PAC on Thursday that reserved $415,000 in Arizona and another $165,000 in Utah, according to CMAG. The ads are scheduled to run through the states' March 22 primaries.
While none of the Republican candidates campaigned publicly on Thursday, Cruz was to appear in Arizona on Friday before shifting his attention to Utah, which his campaign identified in the strategy memo as a key state in his path forward.
Kasich is also making an aggressive play in Utah, with four public events scheduled there over the next two days. The Ohio governor also unveiled the endorsement of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who praised "the temperament and the tone" of the Kasich campaign, an indirect jab at Trump.
Kasich has seized on Trump's sometimes violent rhetoric, while an allied group began airing running a TV ad across Utah Thursday that shows a protester being punched in the face at a Trump rally.
"There was a time when presidents were honorable. Trustworthy. What's happened?" the narrator asks, later adding, "John Kasich is presidential."
With a big delegate lead over Kasich, Cruz remains the Republican best positioned to catch Trump.
Even under a best-case scenario, however, Cruz's campaign envisions a slim chance he can win enough delegates to claim the nomination before the convention. The campaign is predicting success Tuesday in Utah and upcoming contests in North Dakota, Wisconsin and Colorado.
The Cruz strategy also depends upon victories on the final day of primary voting, June 7, which features contests in California and New Jersey, among other states.
In Arizona, experts believe about half of all Arizona voters have already cast their ballots — many of them for Trump.
Cruz's state director, Constantin Querard, downplayed Arizona's importance Thursday even as he said Utah and Arizona have the potential to "reset the race" as a two-person contest.
"I think Utah will be a better measure than Arizona," Querard said.