News analysis

Republican party leaders caught in a bind

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses an audience at The Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 15. PHOTO: REUTERS

After seeming to have convinced a wary Republican establishment to rally behind him, Mr Donald Trump has sent party leaders into a panic once again with his inflammatory response to Sunday's mass shooting in Orlando.

In the weeks since the brash tycoon wrapped up the Republican nomination, the party establishment has slowly but surely united behind him on the understanding that he would tone down his blustery rhetoric and start to back away from his more controversial proposals.

Those hopes unravelled this week as the presumptive presidential nominee doubled down on his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, reiterated his proposal for surveillance on mosques, and even appeared to suggest that President Barack Obama might have had a hand in the shooting - all while reading a speech from a teleprompter.

His remarks had his party colleagues either denouncing their own candidate or doing their best to avoid questions from the press.

"I'm not gonna make a career out of responding to every comment and every tweet," Senator Roger Wicker told reporters.

Similarly, Senator John Barrasso said: "I'm just not going to comment on more of his statements. It's going to be five months of it."

At the heart of the alarm is the fact that the candidate appears to have failed what political news site Politico described as the "desk test" - the ability to picture Mr Trump in the Oval Office at a time of crisis.

And that might complicate things for his own party colleagues who endorse him and are simultaneously trying to win their own elections in November.

As Senator Bob Corker told NBC News on Tuesday: "I continue to be discouraged by the direction of the campaign and comments that are made. And I did not think that yesterday's speech was the type of speech that one would give who wants to lead this country through difficult times."

The uneasiness is exacerbated by the fact that many Republicans have only just finished distancing themselves from the racist remarks Mr Trump had made about the judge overseeing a case against Trump University.

Perhaps sensing the unease, Democrats have sought to tie Republicans to their controversial nominee.

Both President Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton turned up the heat on Republicans on Tuesday.

"Do Republican officials actually agree with this?" he said during an attack on Mr Trump's proposals.

The silver lining for Republicans is that it is not yet clear whether Mr Trump's rhetoric is hurting his polls numbers.

A Bloomberg poll released since the Orlando shooting paints a mixed picture of the Trump-Clinton battle.

Though the poll gave Mrs Clinton a 12-point lead in the White House race, she was edged out by Mr Trump on two important questions: Who voters would have more confidence in to deal with a situation similar to the Orlando shooting, and who would be stronger on combating terrorist threats.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2016, with the headline 'Republican establishment caught in a bind'. Print Edition | Subscribe