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Iowa GOP leaders take 'anybody but Cruz' road, boost Trump

Even as they insist they remain neutral in the presidential race, Iowa’s top Republicans are publicly embracing anybody but Sen. Ted Cruz – while also increasingly accepting the possibility that Donald Trump could be their nominee.

The moves by Iowa GOP officials, amid a tight battle between Trump and Cruz for victory in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, reflect a growing trend nationally, as establishment GOP figures begin to make their peace with the possibility that Trump could be the party’s standard bearer this year.

The state’s senior senator, Charles E. Grassley, a beloved institution among Iowa Republicans, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1981, appeared at a Trump rally in Pella on Saturday and echoed the businessman’s campaign slogan: “We have an opportunity, once again, to make America great again.”

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State GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann introduced Trump on Sunday in Muscatine by pledging that the party would support him “1,000%” if he is their standard bearer.

At a rally here Monday, Sen. Joni Ernst – a rising GOP star -- stood in front of a massive sign for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cruz rival who is hoping for a strong third-place finish here, and introduced him as “someone who is very near and dear to my heart.”

And last week, Gov. Terry Branstad – the longest-serving governor in the nation – said he would like to see Cruz defeated because of his opposition to the federal rule that mandates that gasoline include ethanol, much of it derived from Iowa corn.

The elected officials insist that they are open to all candidates. Grassley has scheduled an event with Cruz for Friday, although whether he will be as effusive in his support remains unknown.

“I’m not backing any candidate,” Branstad said Monday at his weekly news conference when asked about his criticism of Cruz on the ethanol issue. “I’m just advocating on behalf of my state.”

But the actions of the group as a whole speak loudly as does the scheduling and appearance of the recent Iowa events – lushly produced campaign rallies that produce video clips perfect for distributing to potential voters or airing on the local nightly news days before the caucuses.

“At this stage, so late in the game, they say it’s not an endorsement, but to a lot of people, it sure looks that way,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

Spokespeople for Cruz did not respond to requests for comment.

The moves in Iowa reflect a shift in the attitute of the national GOP establishment. After months of assuming Trump would flame out, an increasing number of prominent GOP elected officials and activists are now indicating openness to the idea of Trump as their nominee.

Some would clearly prefer Trump to Cruz, whom they fear could damage down-ballot Republicans in competitive races and who has strained relations with many of his Senate colleagues.

“There is a lot of personal antipathy toward Ted Cruz,” said David Yepsen, who covered politics for the Des Moines Register for 34 years before becoming the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

A veteran Iowa GOP strategist who works for a candidate other than Trump added that it would be political malpractice for elected officials to not try to capture the energy that’s apparent among the billionaire’s supporters.

“We cannot ignore the size and fervor of those who attend his rallies, because we need them in November no matter who the nominee is,” the strategist said, apeaking anonymously to avoid damaging his own candidate’s position.

“Grassley, he hears what all of us heard on Christmas break from every single person – family members to people you went to high school with to folks you see in church once a year -- every one of them mentioned Trump.”

“These people are here,” the strategist said, “it would be a disservice to the party and the candidates if we were to … act like we didn’t care.”

Doug Gross, an prominent GOP attorney in Des Moines who is unaligned in this race, said the candidates were merely “recognizing reality,” which includes a large chunk of the state’s Republican electorate that supports Trump.

“Their job is to make sure that it works,” he said.

Even the appearance of aiding one side, however, is at odds with the usual effort that Iowa officials make to keep a level playing field to protect the state’s status as the location for the first voting contest of the nominating season.

“That’s why it is a little odd that the governor and the others would be putting themselves in the position of giving the appearance – despite their protestations to the contrary – that they’re giving their blessing to a particular candidate,” Hagle said.

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.

For more on Campaign 2016, follow @LATSeema

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