The GOP race becomes the nightmare the party feared

Updated

The Republican Party’s civil war gave way to a surreal and bitter spectacle on Friday. Sen. Marco Rubio labeled Donald Trump a “con artist” who possibly urinates himself. Trump responded with his own bodily fluid-related taunts, authoritarian threats against the press, and finally the biggest endorsement of the cycle.

By the end of the day, the race seemed more chaotic and divided than ever as conservatives lamented that things were falling apart, the center could not hold, and mere anarchy would soon be loosed upon the party. 

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The morning began when Rubio, jumping off his confident debate performance, fired up a Dallas rally with a string of schoolyard disses that jarringly resembled Trump’s own insult comic routines.

“He went backstage, he was having a meltdown,” Rubio told a screaming crowd of admirers. “First, he had this little makeup thing applying, like, makeup around his mustache cause he had one of those sweat mustaches. Then, then he asked for a full-length mirror. I don’t know why, because the podium goes up to here but he wanted a full-length mirror. Maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet.”

The presidential campaign: Marco Rubio
Because of his youth and relatively moderate campaign rhetoric, Rubio is often touted as the Republican Party’s best hope of appealing to younger voters.
He trotted out a new angle depicting his rival as a wussy (Trump would use another word) who threatened protesters with violence despite having “never punched anyone in the face” himself and requesting Secret Service protection before other candidates.

In between jokes about Trump’s bladder and a dramatic reading of his misspelled tweets to the crowd, Rubio made a coherent case that the billionaire made his career “selling people lies so that they come in and buy his product.”  He cited a lawsuit by Trump University graduates who say the founder charged them tens of thousands of dollars for useless seminars at the non-accredited program. He brought up a New York Times expose of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, which turned down hundreds of American job applicants while applying to bring in foreign workers. 

Conservative critics of Trump celebrated. It was everything that strategists combating Trump had been begging Rubio and his rivals to do for months: turn Trump into an object of mockery, undercut his populist message, keep him off balance with continuous attacks. They wished Rubio had arrived here sooner, but hopes rose Friday that he and Cruz – who also savaged Trump on the trail – could maybe drag the front-runner down before it was too late.

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But the celebration was short-lived once Trump debuted his newest supporter: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie, who had mocked Trump while running against him for president, became the first governor to back the billionaire just days after Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter became the first members of Congress to do so. It was easily the biggest sign yet that the brittle wall of establishment opposition to Trump was crumbling as he neared the nomination.

“America must have a strong leader again that can restore American jobs that can restore American confidence — and Donald Trump is just the man to do it,” Christie said at a rally with Trump in Fort Worth, Texas.

Within hours, Maine Gov. Paul LePage – a kind of proto-Trump who recently railed against drug dealers who might “impregnate a young, white girl” in his state — added his endorsement as well.

RELATED: Chris Christie wasn’t always a Trump supporter

Watching the news unfold, one could almost see traditional conservatives moving along the Kubler-Ross scale in real time, landing somewhere between the “denial” and “anger” phases.

Anti-Trump activists, commentators, and strategists set social media ablaze with raw fury at Christie. Establishment operatives like former Bush strategist David Kochel bitterly pelted Christie with fat jokes. Others tried desperately to convince themselves all was well, even suggesting Christie’s endorsement was somehow a sign that Trump’s collapse was even more imminent than before.

They were angry for a reason. Christie was by far the highest-profile mainstream Republican figure yet to back Trump, and raised concerns that others would soon break ranks in hopes of currying favor with the front-runner.

“This Chris Christie endorsement of Trump is real signal to GOP establishment that they had better begin thinking about Trump as the future,” Former House Speaker and once-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich tweeted.

As conservatives grappled with that disturbing possibility, Trump let loose with one of his signature screeds against “lowlife” Rubio, with plenty of emphasis on his appearance.

“He’s a nervous wreck because here’s a guy – you had to see him backstage,” Trump said in Fort Worth. “He was putting on makeup with a trowel. I will not say that he was trying to cover up his ears, I will not say that. He was just trying to cover up the sweat that pours – did you ever see a guy sweat like this?”

Trump waved a bottle of water in the air and shouted “It’s Rubio!” before tossing it behind him, a reference to Rubio sipping from a small bottle during his 2013 State of the Union Response.

He broke from attacking Rubio to threaten the press, promising to weaken free speech protections so that supporters could sue news outlets more easily. 

2/26/16, 7:28 PM ET

Christie: Rubio campaign 'almost over'

Chris Christie is Donald Trump’s newest endorser, and the New Jersey governor joins Trump at an Oklahoma rally where he accuses Rubio of being “desperate” and running a campaign that is set to fail.

“We’re going to open up those libel laws folks and we’re going to have people sue you like you never got sued before,” Trump said. “We have many things to do. We have many, many things to do.”

At the same time, Cruz tried to avoid being pushed out of the conversation and offered up his own set of accusations against Trump’s ethics.

“Every deal Donald does, whether its Vera Coking with eminent domain, or whether it is using illegal immigrants to build Trump Tower, the people who get hammered are the working man and women,” he said. “He gets rich and everyone else gets left holding the bag. “ 

Cruz repeated his line from the debate that Trump was on “The Apprentice” with former basketball star Dennis Rodman during the 2013 immigration debate. Rodman tweeted at Cruz that Trump would “fire your ass.”

Looming in the background, Politico reported that a group of Republican donors were looking at the feasibility of fielding an independent candidate in the event Trump won the nomination. Billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is already exploring a run and is expected to decide whether to move forward within weeks.

“If he wins, you will see the real splintering of the party,” Katie Packer Gage, who runs the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, told NBC News.

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Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz

The GOP race becomes the nightmare the party feared

Updated