Donald Trump and some mainstream Republicans are engaged in a long-distance flirtation. Both sides are coming to the realization that they'll need each other if the billionaire businessman becomes the party's presidential nominee.
The GOP establishment is no fonder of Trump than when he first roiled the campaign last summer with his controversial comments about immigrants and women. But with voting beginning in just over a week, his durability atop preference polls has pushed some donors, strategists and party elders to grudgingly accept the prospect of his winning the nomination.
"We'd better stop hoping for something else and accept the possibility that he's our nominee and be prepared to rally around him if that's the case," said Fred Malek, a top Republican presidential fundraiser.
Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican nominee who represented Kansas in the House and Senate for decades, said of Trump: "He's got this personality where I do believe he could work with Congress."
Trump, too, has started to suggest that he'd look for ways to work with Republican leaders if he wins.
"I'm a dealmaker who will get things done," he said Thursday during an event in Las Vegas. "There's a point at which — let's get to be a little establishment. We got to get things done, folks, OK?"
However, the establishment's growing acceptance of Trump's electoral prospects so far hasn't manifested itself in tangible support for his campaign. The real estate mogul has not been endorsed by any congressional lawmakers or governors, nor are there any indications of a big wave of major donors planning to get involved with his campaign, despite Trump's assertion that he's received "so many calls" from wealthy and influential Republicans.
If anything, the most visible signs of support for Trump's campaign in recent days have come from those who see themselves as outside the Republican establishment. Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and a favorite of the tea party insurgency, announced her support for him on Tuesday.
The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier explains why Mrs. Palin chose Trump over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
They appear to be ideologically in sync. As frustrated Cruz supporters pointed out all afternoon, Trump does not have a history of committed conservative positions. Yes, he wants a wall on the Southern border, but he’s also said kind things about single-payer health care and mused about higher taxes on the rich. He used to be a Democrat.
So why would the self-declared Mama Grizzly of the GOP pick him?
Because she is not that conservative herself, that’s why. Her address in support of Trump was not a list of right-leaning positions taken and liberal bills opposed in the manner of a Cruz stump speech. It was an expression of populist anger, à la Trump. In the past, Palin has called herself a feminist and even supported a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, points out political expert Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight. In terms of actual policy positions, she’s no Senator Cruz, or even a Marco Rubio. She’s a moderate conservative.
“Palin is more interested in outsider credentials than conservative bona fides,” Mr. Enten writes.
Amy Kremer, the former chairman of the Tea Party Express organization, announced plans this week to launch a super PAC backing Trump's candidacy.
"The one thing I know for sure is that he absolutely is 100 percent pro-American and he loves this country and wants to restore it to greatness," Kremer said of Trump. "At this point, I really believe he is the only one with the ability to do that."
Much of the mainstream Republican reckoning with Trump is rooted in deep disdain for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the businessman's closest rival. Cruz is seen as more likely to try to upend the web of lobbyists, donors and other powerbrokers who have long wielded enormous influence in the Republican Party.
Liz Mair, a communications operative who is running one of the GOP's few anti-Trump efforts, said donors affiliated with other candidates would rather let Trump beat Cruz in the early voting states than let their least-favorite senator gain momentum.
"They'd rather that he kills Cruz by winning in Iowa and New Hampshire and then try to take him down," Mair said.
Even as he's taken up the anti-establishment mantle, Trump has made some quiet overtures to GOP powerbrokers. He met with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson last year and has also reached out to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though he hasn't spoken directly with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
There are still big swaths of establishment-minded Republican voters and officials who staunchly oppose Trump's candidacy and believe both he and Cruz are unelectable in November. They say there's still plenty of time for a more mainstream candidate to mount a serious challenge.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are all seeking to beat expectations in Iowa, then be a top finisher in New Hampshire. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is also in the mix in New Hampshire.
Having already been endorsed by four senators, Rubio's campaign says it's preparing to unveil a series of endorsements from high-profile elected officials in the coming weeks, part of an effort to push more mainstream Republicans to coalesce behind his candidacy.
"They're not lining up behind Donald Trump," Rubio said Friday on Fox News when asked about Trump's establishment support. "They're just telling people their opinion about Ted Cruz."
Still, John Catsimatidis, a major Republican and Democratic donor, said it's time for the GOP to accept that when it comes to Trump's strength, "the facts are the facts." After donating to several campaigns, including Bush's and a super PAC supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker before he dropped out of the race in the fall, Catsimatidis says he's now talking up Trump, a longtime friend, in conversations with other big money donors.
"He showed his toughness and we need somebody tough," he said.
Trump himself has been a fixture of the New York donor class for decades and already has deep relationships with many establishment players. He often talks about how he's been in politics all his life and has been seen as the "fair-haired boy" showering contributions on both Republicans and Democrats.
Associated Press writer Julie Bykowitz in Washington contributed to this report.