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Steve Kraske: As 2016 nears, Karl Rove is jittery

One minute, Karl Rove is flatly predicting that Donald Trump will not be the GOP nominee for president. Seemingly the next, he is acknowledging that Trump has a shot if the field remains splintered.
One minute, Karl Rove is flatly predicting that Donald Trump will not be the GOP nominee for president. Seemingly the next, he is acknowledging that Trump has a shot if the field remains splintered. The Associated Press

Karl Rove is nervous.

His party needs a presidential candidate who can unite the country and unite the party.

Rove, who stopped in Kansas City this week, is convinced the GOP front-runner — surely you’ve heard of the man named Trump — is a guy who can do neither. The field remains 14 candidates large, unwieldy and possibly headed for critical meltdown. So Rove, the man who helped elect the last Republican president, sits back and wonders.

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Of Donald Trump, he can’t hold back:

“You cannot unite the country and unite the party … if you dismiss all these accomplished people running for president in the primary with you as losers and morons and clowns,” Rove said here. “You cannot win the general election if you take a growing, dynamic part of the electorate like the Latino population and say all the people who are coming here from Mexico are murderers and rapists.”

Rove, 64, is not working for a candidate this time. When it comes to Trump, the two have had their run-ins. Trump has derided Rove as a “clown” — there’s that word again — who lacks credibility, is a loser and missed on his prediction of the 2012 race. In turn, Rove has compared Trump to Todd Akin, Missouri’s much-maligned 2012 U.S. Senate candidate, and he has consistently questioned Trump’s ability to forge a winning coalition.

One minute Rove is flatly predicting that Trump will not be the GOP nominee. “High floor, low ceiling,” is how Rove describes the real estate tycoon, meaning Trump has found a way to connect with more Republicans than anyone else right now, but his upward potential is limited.

And yet, in seemingly the next moment, Rove is acknowledging that Trump has a shot if the field remains splintered. In theory, Rove said, Trump could squeak it out with 25 to 30 percent GOP support.

Then, look out.

“He’s in bad shape before the Democrats go after him,” Rove said. Hillary Clinton would crush him.

It’s hard to argue with any of this. No question Trump is a dream candidate for the Democrats with his bombast and, count ’em, four bankruptcies. Astonishingly, he continues to lead the polls even after his halt-Muslims-from-entering-the-country comments this week.

In his visit here, Rove made a few other key points:

▪ Trump almost certainly won’t run as an independent, a move he ominously warned about this week that almost certainly would sink the GOP nominee. Time is short, and state party rules for getting on ballots are knotty and complex, Rove said.

▪ The GOP has five candidates who have the potential to bring Republicans together: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Rand Paul. Rove declined to narrow the field to the three most likely contenders, though insiders favor Trump, Ted Cruz and Rubio.

▪ Bush may well have one more run in him. The key: “He’s got to break through in New Hampshire,” Rove said.

▪ Cruz’s campaign may be based on a faulty assumption, which is that there is an army of conservatives waiting to rush to the polls for the right candidate. Not so, Rove said.

▪ The eventual GOP nominee may not be known by the end of the primaries, meaning there may not be a first-ballot winner at the convention.

▪ The Republican Party is adjusting just fine to the country’s changing demographics, thank you very much. The R’s, after all, control the Senate, the House, the most state legislative seats since the 1920s and most of the governorships. Republican leaders of the future, Rove said, have no problem speaking to blacks and Hispanics and winning them over.

Finally, the election of 1896, of all things, just may contain some lessons for the GOPers of 2016. As Rove points out in his new book, “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters,” the 25th president demonstrated the importance of broadening the base (he reached out to immigrants and Catholics), refused to compromise on principle, used language that voters found appealing and spoke in tones of reconciliation.

“He’s a uniter,” Rove said of McKinley.

The same can’t be said of Trump.

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