Donald Trump+Ted Cruz

By Philip Rucker and Robert Costa
January 16, 2016 at 12:01 AM

As the presidential primary race moves into a more urgent and combative phase, there is growing acceptance among Republicans, including the Washington and financial elite, that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the two candidates most likely to become the party’s nominee.

Their commanding performances at the sixth debate — along with their continued dominance in national and early state polls — have solidified the conclusion of many Republicans that the campaign is becoming a two-person contest.

Long expected to become a race between an outsider and an establishment candidate, it is coming down instead as one between two outsiders, with dwindling time for their rivals to change the trajectory before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

There is hope that one of the four establishment candidates may emerge as a consensus choice and consolidate support. The two who seem best positioned to do so, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, had some sparkling moments in Thursday’s Fox Business Channel debate but left the stage bruised and squabbling. They returned to the campaign trail on Friday aiming more firepower at each other than Trump or Cruz.

“Trump and Cruz sucked all the oxygen out of the room, which is bad news for the establishment folks,” said Barry Bennett, a veteran GOP strategist who recently resigned as campaign manager to Ben Carson. “It doesn’t look like much is going to stop them. They’re in a tier off to themselves, and I think our nominee is going to be Cruz or Trump.”

Republican donors, who had long assumed that the outsider candidates would self-destruct and that voters would rally around someone such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, are suddenly adjusting their thinking and strategies.

Spencer Zwick, the national finance chairman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, said power brokers and financiers are now trying to cozy up to Trump in various ways, such as reaching out through mutual friends in New York’s business community.

“A lot of donors are trying to figure their way into Trump’s orbit. There is a growing feeling among many that he may be the guy, so people are certainly seeing if they can find a home over there,” he said.

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