HOLLIS, N.H. (AP) — After months of predicting a comeback for their preferred candidates, Republican establishment leaders now concede the first two contests of the presidential race, in Iowa and New Hampshire early next month, are Donald Trump's and Ted Cruz's to lose.
That leaves many GOP traditionalists, who fear each candidate would be a disaster in the November general election, pinning their White House hopes on a feat no Republican has pulled off in modern political history: securing the nomination without winning at least one of the first two states on the calendar.
It's a risky strategy at best, and party officials are hoping that weaker candidates will drop out before the South Carolina primary that follows New Hampshire, allowing voters to more easily coalesce behind an alternative to the billionaire real estate mogul and the Texas senator.
"I don't know how they can convince themselves that they'll be able to go into South Carolina and get something going, having come in a distant third, fourth, fifth place in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire Republican operative. "Especially when you will have two candidates who have been very strong."
Trump and Cruz are atop the field in Iowa, where voters caucus Feb. 1. Preference polls find Trump with a commanding lead in New Hampshire, which votes Feb. 9, and Cruz in the mix for second place.
The nine others in Republicans race are fighting to emerge from the pack; there's little sign anyone will drop out before voting begins.
Among them are Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Each is competing for the same pool of center-right voters.
Allies of Bush and Kasich in New Hampshire have been trading phone calls in recent weeks, trying to gauge each other's thinking about staying in the race. Campaign officials say they have felt no direct pressure from party leaders to drop out before the first two contests.
But there's open discussion about the need for some of the more conventional candidates to drop out after New Hampshire votes on Feb. 9.
"We shouldn't have a whole lotta folks running," said Henry Barbour, a Republican national committeeman from Mississippi. "The ones who don't do well need to get out of the stinkin' race."
Voters, too, appear increasingly ready for the field to narrow.
"Normally by now a bunch of people would have dropped out," said Milt Janosky, a 74-year-old retiree at a Bush town hall in his hometown of Hollis, New Hampshire.
Karen Whitham, a 72-year-old from West Des Moines, Iowa, said of the field: "Some of them should just drop out. Some of them don't have a chance and they know it."
The risk for the more mainstream candidates is that Trump or Cruz generates momentum in the first two states, and it's too strong to stop as the race turns to South Carolina and beyond. Since 1976, every major party presidential nominee has won either Iowa or New Hampshire, with the exception of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.
To be sure, large numbers of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire say they're still undecided, and previous contests in both states have swung in unexpected directions just days before the caucuses and primary.
"People in the states make their decisions very late," Rubio said during a swing through Iowa on Saturday. "They take very seriously their vote."
For all the talk of some late tumult in Republican field, the 2016 race has remained surprisingly consistent, with Cruz proving to be the first real threat to Trump's lead in months.
In a sign of their increasing separation from the rest of the field, Trump and Cruz have spent the past week focused on tearing each other down, ending the de facto alliance they had maintained to this point in the race.
Trump has suggested the Canadian-born Cruz isn't eligible to run for president, and has accused the senator of being a "great hypocrite" for not disclosing loans he took from big Wall Street banks to help fund his 2012 Senate campaign. Cruz has responded by questioning Trump's "New York values" — a coded suggestion that Trump is too liberal to be a Republican.
Trying to stay close behind, Rubio jabbed Trump and Cruz repeatedly as he campaigned across Iowa this past weekend, warning voters they "can't just elect any Republican."
"Being angry about the direction of our country by itself will not be enough," Rubio said, referencing the conservative anger fueling Trump and Cruz' candidacies. In last week's debate, Trump declared that he "gladly" accepted "the mantle of anger."
Trump's strength was a constant theme during Bush's town hall in Hollis on Friday. Several questioners wondered how an experienced politician can compete in an election dominated by anger with those who have held elected office. "The numbers right now aren't lying and we don't have a lot of time left," one voter said.
"He's a talent, he understands why people are angry," said Bush, one of the few candidates taking on Trump in recent weeks. But there was little he could promise the questioner about his ability to block Trump's path to the nomination.
"It's way above my pay grade to figure out how this plays out," he said.
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