WASHINGTON - A month ago, Democrats were fretting about the party unity challenges facing their presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton. Now Republicans are wringing their hands over their expected standard-bearer, Donald Trump.
Trump complicated his own unity efforts this week with divisive comments in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, doubling down on his proposed Muslim ban and suggesting that President Barack Obama’s priorities were more with the terrorists than the American people.
Trump told a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, that the Orlando tragedy has made the threat of terrorism a central issue in the campaign. “We are not going to let people take advantage of us. We are going to go to the movie theater. We are going to go on airplanes. We are going to lead our lives like we are supposed to lead our lives,” Trump told enthusiastic followers.
May go it alone
But Trump’s divisive rhetoric on Muslims and his attacks on Obama and Hillary Clinton have made some Republicans nervous, something Trump chose to address at a rally in Atlanta, Georgia. “The Republicans, honestly folks, our leaders have to get tougher. This is tough to do alone, but you know what? I think I’m going to be forced to.” Trump added his own message for Republican leaders seeking to put distance between themselves and the presumptive nominee: “Don’t talk. Please be quiet.”
Trump’s comments in the wake of Orlando and previous controversial allegations of bias involving a federal judge of Mexican heritage have put Republican leaders in an awkward spot, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “We have plenty of issues, and my advice to our nominee would be to start talking about the issues that the American people care about and to start doing it now,” McConnell told reporters a few days ago.
But when pressed to comment on Trump on Tuesday, McConnell curtly replied that he “wouldn’t be commenting” on the party’s presidential nominee this week.
Other Republicans have chosen to keep quiet, worried that any public defiance of Trump will anger his supporters and could spell political trouble for them.
“If you repudiate Trump, you are going to alienate some specific portion of your Republican voting base, and you need them all in an election where you are going to have a headwind regardless,” said analyst Norman Ornstein with the American Enterprise Institute. “If you support Trump, then you are stuck with his policy positions.” Ornstein spoke at an event hosted by the New America Foundation.
Trump’s continuing troubles have made his Republican opponents hopeful that they can block him at the party nominating convention in July. “It’s sort of reignited this notion that we have to get somebody to step in at the convention and stop him from being president,” said conservative commentator Fred Barnes on VOA’s “Issues in the News” program. Barnes is editor of the Weekly Standard.
Most analysts said that was still a long shot and that many Republicans would be loath to try to take the nomination away from Trump, fearing a grass roots backlash.
Clinton, Obama go after Trump
The controversy over Trump and his comments has also given an opening to his expected Democratic opponent in the general election, Hillary Clinton.
“A ban on Muslims would not have stopped this attack. Neither would a wall. So not one of Donald Trump’s reckless ideas would have saved a single life in Orlando,” Clinton said at a campaign stop in Virginia Wednesday. Clinton added that “we need leadership, common sense and concrete plans because we are facing a brutal enemy.”
Clinton has work to do in unifying the Democratic Party. She remains intent on winning over rival Bernie Sanders and his supporters after a long and sometimes bitter primary campaign.
Sanders told reporters he is focused on making sure his key issues are recognized and supported at the party convention in July in Philadelphia. “We are going to fight as hard as we can to create a Democratic Party that represents the working families and the low-income people in this country."
Clinton is also relying on President Obama to play a key role in helping unify the party. “While there is vitriol between the parts of the party now, there is a good sense that will probably subside and it will be a relatively unified Democratic Party down the road,” said John Fortier with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
Obama lent his voice to the anti-Trump effort with a verbal broadside blasting Trump’s proposed Muslim ban earlier this week. The president said Trump’s comments in the wake of Orlando were “dangerous” and that the Muslim ban would undermine U.S. efforts to secure the support of moderate Muslims around the world.
Further evidence that Clinton is making headway came in the latest public opinion polls that showed Clinton expanding her lead over Trump. The latest NBC News-Survey Monkey poll had Clinton in the lead over Trump by a margin of 49 to 42 percent.
A Bloomberg poll gave Clinton a lead of 49 to 37 percent over Trump, with Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson getting 9 percent. Even though Clinton has gained in recent polls, many experts were cautious, predicting more ups and downs over the next four-and-one-half months in what is likely to be a very personal and nasty campaign.