GOP summit in Orlando underscores unsettled race for president
ORLANDO — A couple thousand Republicans spent the past two days at a resort here listening to speeches from the party's diverse bench of presidential candidates. But the real drama was 25 miles away at a megachurch where Sen. Ted Cruz declared war on illegal immigration, the crowd rising with a passion somewhat missing across town.
The contrast cuts to the state of the 2016 race for the Republican nomination.
Less than three months from the first contests, the field is unsettled and mired in conflict about the ideological direction of the party and an overlapping clash of insiders vs. outsiders and hybrids such as Cruz.
"We have a really good chance of winning, but this primary is really becoming very unstable. It's at a tipping point. If we don't right it, we're in trouble," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the speakers at the Republican Party of Florida's Sunshine Summit, said in an interview.
Donald Trump remains at the top of most polls, defying predictions he would fade. Outlandish as ever, he has begun assembling a ground campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Ben Carson has challenged Trump's position as the reigning outsider and proven himself equally durable. In an extraordinary scene Friday, Carson was asked during a news conference to respond to Trump likening him to a "child molester."
Meantime, conventional candidates such as Florida's Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are battling to stand out if the frontrunners stumble — an expectation many still cling to. The race has gotten increasingly contentious and last week saw the resurgence of the explosive issue of immigration, reviving fears among party leaders that rhetoric will dig a deeper hole among Hispanic voters.
"The world has gone a little mad on our side," said Cindy Graves of Jacksonville, past president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women. "Republicans have never seen this kind of brass-knuckled primary. If I'm not frightened, it's because I have faith that American voters will make the right decision in the end."
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