Trump's comments spark worry among NC Republicans

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump's inflammatory remarks have gotten a lot of attention recently. There's growing concern among Republicans in North Carolina and nationwide that he's hurting the party's image and its appeal to moderate and independent voters.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump knows that inflammatory statements get a lot of media coverage – and he's made a lot of them lately. Now, there's growing concern among Republicans in North Carolina and nationwide that his comments are hurting the party's image and its ability to attract moderate and independent voters.

On the campaign trail, Trump has described Latino immigrants as criminals and rapists. He's called women "bimbo" and ugly. In the past week, he condoned the beating of a black protester at a campaign event in Alabama, tweeted out racially charged misinformation about black-on-white crime, accused New Jersey Muslims of celebrating 9/11 and even said he would require Muslim citizens to register in a national database – an idea even some Republicans have called "fascist."

Yet, he's still the solid leader in GOP polling in North Carolina and nationwide.

"People are buzzing," said longtime GOP political consultant Carter Wrenn.

Wrenn is no stranger to bare-knuckle politics. He worked for late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, running negative ads against Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt that drew national attention. But he's never seen anything like the Trump phenomenon.

"In politics, most things are repeats of past things. Trump’s sort of a new thing, and the rules have sort of been suspended, and that's caught a lot of people by surprise," Wrenn said.

Meredith College political science professor David McLennan said Republicans are right to be worried about Trump's effect on their brand.

"Donald Trump is going after minority groups that they’ve been working hard for years to try to bring into their large Republican tent," McLennan said. "I think, from a strategic perspective, if you lose women, you lose all the African-Americans, you lose the Hispanic population, where do you go? There’s not enough old, white guys left to win the presidency."

Wrenn says Trump's poll numbers increased after the Paris terrorist attacks of Nov. 13, as potential voters looked for a strong response.

"He may be bellicose, he may get his tongue into gear sometimes before his brain, but he seems strong," Wrenn said. "They want to defeat ISIS. They’re scared, and I think Trump has appealed to the need for a strong man to face the enemy."

McLennan noted that Trump's rivals are starting to push back against his statements much more forcefully than in the past. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the Muslim registry idea "abhorrent." U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Trump's 9/11 story is "not true." Ohio Gov. John Kasich's super-PAC is buying $2.5 million in ads attacking Trump for his inflammatory comments.

"I think they’re starting to realize that Iowa’s just around the corner. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, how do they stop him?" McLennan said.

He added that other Republican candidates have reason to worry as well, especially those who need to appeal to independents and moderates.

"Sometimes, voters don’t separate the person at the top of the ticket from other Republicans down-ballot. If Donald Trump is the nominee, then you look at Gov. [Pat] McCrory, Sen. [Richard] Burr, all the way down the ballot – they’ve not made those inflammatory statements, but they could be collateral damage," McLennan explained.

"They’re playing defense against their own candidate, not against Democrats," he said. "I think that’s the real concern."

Wrenn says it's too early to say whether Trump's candidacy or his potential nomination will affect the GOP's image in 2016.

"It's sort of like a hurricane out to sea. Is it going to come ashore and wreak havoc? Or will it just dissipate? Nobody knows right now," Wrenn said.

Meantime, North Carolina Republican Party director Dallas Woodhouse downplayed concerns about Trump's comments.

"We are currently having a healthy, robust debate among a wide range of candidates on a wide range of issues that will help Republicans and unaffiliated voters make a decision in an exciting and competitive North Carolina primary," Woodhouse said in a statement to WRAL News. "This debate is good for our party and country as a whole, as opposed to the Democratic Party which is determined to coronate a flawed candidate who is in lockstep with President Obama."

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