With Friends Like These: GOP Race Spurs Awkward Endorsements
WASHINGTON - Sen. Lindsey Graham says Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz is "not my favorite." Ben Carson says there are "better people" than Donald Trump to serve as commander in chief.
And those are the candidates Graham and Carson want to win.
Presidential endorsements often create strange alliances - remember over-the-top Trump validating buttoned-up Mitt Romney four years ago? But rarely have so many partnerships of political necessity appeared to be as reluctant, awkward, even downright tortured as in the 2016 GOP race.
"Neither Trump nor Cruz win Mr. Congeniality contests," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist whose preferred candidate, Jeb Bush, flamed out in February. When it comes to the leading GOP candidates, Navarro said she's "not sure why anybody would want to hang out with them."
Bush found a way to throw his support behind Cruz without ever actually having to hang out with the Texas senator. Rather than join Cruz for the traditional on-camera grip-and-grin that normally accompanies an endorsement, Bush took a more subdued approach: a brief, 219-word statement posted on Facebook.
Bush has made no public appearances with Cruz since that initial announcement and has stayed quiet about his support for his former rival on social media. Graham, who joked earlier this year that choosing between Cruz and Trump was like picking between being murdered or poisoned, did hold a private fundraiser for Cruz, but has not made any public appearances with his Senate colleague.
Trump has had more success getting his supporters to appear on stage with him. His surprise endorsement from Chris Christie stunned the political world and appeared for a time to be a perfect union, with the New Jersey governor traveling with the billionaire businessman, and even standing beside Trump during a celebratory press conference after the March 1 Super Tuesday contests.
That's when things took a turn.
Christie's deer-in-the-headlights expression as Trump rambled on at length sparked a thousand Internet parodies. Not only has Christie not appeared on stage with Trump since then, he's barely spoken about his favored candidate in public and has bristled at questions about the real estate mogul from reporters back home in New Jersey.
Carson was also game for an on-camera endorsement of Trump last month. The soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon, who is a favorite of religious conservatives, praised Trump as a man who is far more reflective privately than he comes across publicly.
Trump probably would have preferred if Carson had just left it there.
Instead, Carson has set off on one of the most extraordinary surrogate tours, raising more questions about Trump's qualifications to be president than he's answered. He's said he would have preferred another scenario than seeing Trump winning the nomination, suggested Trump's supporters aren't making a rational decision, and conceded that his favored candidate has "major defects."
"Is it possible Ben Carson is secretly with us and sabotaging Trump from the inside?" former Bush adviser Tim Miller wrote on Twitter. Miller is now working for a super PAC that opposes Trump.
To be sure, both Trump and Cruz have rallied a few loyal endorsements.
Former GOP candidate and business executive Carly Fiorina has been one of Cruz's most active surrogates, campaigning for him aggressively throughout the country. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker waited until just before his state's primary to back Cruz, but his late seal of approval was seen as a boon for the Texas senator, who went on to top Trump in the Midwestern battleground.
Trump has benefited from the support of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who announced his support shortly before his home state's March 1 primary, a contest the New York businessman went on to win handily. Sessions has also set up a foreign policy advisory group for Trump and is helping introduce the real estate mogul to prominent Washington Republicans.
But Trump and Cruz have an incentive for avoiding having a parade of elected officials joining them on the campaign trail. Both have cast themselves as Washington outsiders who want to shake things up in the nation's capital rather than be embraced by their party's leaders.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., was the first House member to endorse Trump. Even as he's taken on an active role in promoting the businessman, he says he's not expecting a flood of his colleagues to follow.
"Mr. Trump is a political outsider," he said. "He's not collecting endorsements."