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Fear of a Clinton White House may unite GOP behind Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

As presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan took small steps toward mending their rift Friday, other prominent members of the GOP remained loudly resistant to Trump.

Ryan's office announced that he and other party leaders will meet with Trump on Capitol Hill next Thursday "to begin a discussion about the kind of Republican principles and ideas that can win the support of the American people this November," and Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will meet with Trump separately as well.

Ryan had sent tremors through the political world Thursday when the top-ranking Republican told CNN he was "not ready" to endorse Trump, who solidified his grasp on the party's nomination with his victory in the Indiana primary on Tuesday.

"I think what a lot of Republicans want to see is that we have a standard-bearer that bears our standards," Ryan said.

On Friday morning, a Trump campaign spokeswoman said Ryan is not fit to remain Speaker if he does not support Trump.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy offered a somewhat unenthusiastic endorsement of Trump Friday, echoing a similar statement Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier in the week.

"Look, I've always said that I will support whoever becomes the Republican nominee, and that's what I will," McCarthy told KBAK on Friday.

Although some former 2016 candidates like Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal have recently set aside their differences with Trump, one-time rivals Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush announced Friday that they cannot support him.

"I do not believe he is a reliable Republican conservative nor has he displayed the judgment and temperament to serve as Commander in Chief," Graham said in a statement, adding that he also will not vote for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

"I fully understand why Lindsey Graham cannot support me. If I got beaten as badly as I beat him, and all the other candidates he endorsed, I would not be able to give my support either," Trump responded.

Some Republicans continue to push for a third party run against Trump by a more conservative candidate.

"With Clinton and Trump, the fix is in. Heads, they win; tails, you lose. Why are we confined to these two terrible options?" Sen. Ben Sasse wrote in a widely shared Facebook post.

Many in the #NeverTrump movement have not let up on their criticism of the presumptive nominee at all.

"I won't support Donald Trump because I was raised to stand up to bullies, not stand behind them," former Marco Rubio digital staffer Cabot Phillips tweeted.

With deadlines for ballot access fast approaching, one expert called the idea of a third party campaign "quixotic."

"Under the best of circumstances, it would be an extreme longshot and would be more of a statement candidacy than an actual competitive one," said John Carroll, professor of mass communication at Boston University, "but under the circumstances now it seems a completely futile exercise and one of those things that's designed to make people feel better about themselves as they're going under for the third time."

According to Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, some Trump critics are genuine in their conviction that he should not be president, but the real concern for many is that they do not believe he can beat Hillary Clinton.

"You want to know where most of Donald Trump's problems will go away is if he can show himself to be competitive with Hillary Clinton in the general election," he said.

While Clinton has not yet locked down the Democratic nomination, most observers expect she will defeat Sen. Bernie Sanders and take on Trump in the fall.

Recent polls show Clinton holding a sizable lead over Trump in a head-to-head matchup. Conservatives may not be happy about Trump, but most would rather have any Republican in the Oval Office than surrender it to Clinton.

"A lot of them can be won over if they think that Trump can win...They understand the stakes of the election, whether or not they want to admit it," O'Connell said.

O'Connell said Ryan's public hesitation to back Trump is not surprising, but he also speculated that it was partly a bit of political theater.

"Paul has to slow walk his endorsement of Trump," he said. Displaying some reticence before meeting with Trump and presumably eventually endorsing him may help provide cover for other conservative House members to get behind the nominee.

Trump knows that Ryan does not have to play ball with him, O'Connell said, but he also knows Ryan does not want to see Hillary Clinton win in November. Despite some of Trump's comments to the contrary, party unity will be essential for him to have any chance at winning the general election.

"He does need the party because he doesn't have a campaign infrastructure," O'Connell said. The shift from the primary campaign delegate fight to the general election war for 270 electoral votes is like going "from playing stickball to facing the New York Yankees," and Trump needs the support of most Republicans.

"You'd rather have the party with you than against you," O'Connell said, but he added, "That doesn't mean you have to compromise who you are as Trump either."

Comments by Clinton in the last few days about Trump being "dangerous" and "a loose cannon" and criticism President Obama lodged at Trump Friday are just a taste of what Democrats will unleash over the next two months.

Calling the days between now and the Republican National Convention in July "the most important ten weeks of Trump's campaign," O'Connell said the candidate will need to unite his own party while keeping those attacks from sticking. In 2012, Democrats effectively used this time to define Republican nominee Mitt Romney and critically wound him before the fall campaign began.

Ultimately, the strategist believes unity can and will happen, no matter how harshly Trump's critics within the party have attacked him in the past.

"It comes down to Hillary being in the White House...Sitting on the sidelines for another four to eight years is almost not an option," he said.

Carroll also expects Ryan and others in the GOP establishment to fall in line behind Trump, but that support may come at a price for the billionaire businessman.

"Paul Ryan is playing Donald Trump's game, which is negotiation," he said. "So I think he's got something that despite what Trump says, Trump really needs, and why just hand it to him? For both of them these are their opening bids and I think that they will negotiate their way into the general election, and I'd be very surprised if there weren't some kind of accommodations made on both sides."

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