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GOP Strategist Expects October To Be Full Of Presidential Campaign Surprises


Donald Trump's performance in Sunday's presidential debate may have reassured his most loyal supporters, but prominent Republicans continue to abandon his candidacy or at least distance themselves from it.


This all began, as we know, with the release of an audiotape, which captured Trump bragging about assaulting women, prompting his party's leaders, from Senator John McCain to Condoleezza Rice, to turn their backs.

The leaders of the Senate and House did not back off their endorsements of their candidate. But yesterday morning, in a call to Republican members of the House, Speaker Paul Ryan astonished his colleagues.

MONTAGNE: And for more on that we reached Mac Stipanovich. He's one of Florida's most powerful Republican operatives. When we spoke with him during the primaries last May, he had been supporting Jeb Bush and then Marco Rubio and was deeply critical of Trump. This time, I asked Stipanovich exactly what was Paul Ryan's message to his colleagues, many of whom are running for office.

MAC STIPANOVICH: Speaker Ryan told them it was every man for himself. And he was not going to defend Donald Trump. He didn't say he was unendorsing (ph) him, didn't say he wouldn't vote for him. But he told the Republicans in the United States House of Representatives that he will not be defending Donald Trump and they need not do so either and that literally that it's every man for himself.

MONTAGNE: At this late stage, do you think there's any chance that Ryan or McConnell would back off their endorsements?

STIPANOVICH: Well, it is a late stage, but it is still almost a month till Election Day. I cannot believe that the Clinton campaign opposition research bag is empty. I would expect another shoe to drop later this week or certainly next week. And at some point, even those who are most reluctant to abandon the sinking ship may have to get in the water.

MONTAGNE: What about the vice president, Mike Pence? It would be unheard of for him to drop out. He has said, 100 percent, he's sticking with it. He won't. On the other hand, there's talk of that.

STIPANOVICH: Yeah, he's not going to drop out. I mean, the poor man is in just a terrible position. He's basically destroying any shred of reputation that he had. I mean, he criticized Martha Raddatz for misstating his position on Syria when she, in fact, read his statement on Syria. Those are the kind of difficulties you find yourself in when you align yourself with Donald Trump.

MONTAGNE: You know, you suggested that it - there's a month to go. In fact, though, another way to look at this is that there's only four weeks to go before this election and...

STIPANOVICH: That's correct. That's correct.

MONTAGNE: And we do know that Donald Trump has really fortified his supporters. And I would say they're even hardening as top Republicans flee from endorsing him.

STIPANOVICH: Yes, they've absolutely lost touch with reality. I mean, they're literally face down in the Kool-Aid. I don't think anything that could possibly happen would change that 35 to 40 percent of the electorate's mind. They're just locked in and will not give up.

MONTAGNE: So though, what then does this mean for the party after this election? If Donald Trump doesn't win, it's not as if they're going away.

STIPANOVICH: Well, I think what you'll see over the next couple of cycles, '18 and '20, is this thing is going to shake out one way or the other - either real conservative Republicans, you know, men and women of conscience and enough sense to come in out of the rain, will regain control of the party or they will leave the party. In many ways, I think that the election process itself will take care of this.

One of the things we're going to learn here is that you can't be crazy and win a large constituency general election. A couple of more of those lessons in statewide Senate races in '18, governors races in '18, where people who embrace Trump go down to defeat because of it, and I think you'll start seeing that Republican candidates in primaries will be more moderate and get closer to the center right. So they have some chance of winning. What will be the cure for this is the actual outcomes on Election Day, not all the b.s. on social media.

MONTAGNE: But you're still talking here - when you're talking Trump supporters - a sizable number of voters. Can the Republican Party afford to lose them?

STIPANOVICH: Well, I'll tell you what - I don't know that we'll lose them. Hopefully there'll be some re-education. But if we have to lose them, then lose them we must. What Trump stands for is wrong. It's bad for America. It's bad for the party. And if we have to wander in the wilderness for a decade until we can get a party that stands for the right things and can make a contribution to the future of America, then we need to wander.

MONTAGNE: Let me just say this again - you are a longtime lobbyist for the Republican Party. But you said months ago on this program that you would rather vote for Hillary Clinton even though you disagreed with her policies. It was probably a little more hypothetical then. Do you plan to cast a vote for her in Florida on November 8?

STIPANOVICH: You know, my first inclination is to be dishonest about that and say, you know, as a lifelong Republican who's never voted for a Democrat, I'm just not going to vote in this race or I'm going to write-in Jeb Bush. But that would be dishonest. I am going to vote for Hillary Clinton. I loathe Donald Trump with the passion that I usually reserve for snakes. And so, yeah, I'm going to vote for Hillary Clinton.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us again.

STIPANOVICH: All right, (laughter), no problem.

STIPANOVICH: Mac Stipanovich is a GOP strategist and lobbyist in Tallahassee, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.