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The Spat Between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush Could Be a Fight for the Soul of the GOP

Image: Celebrity Sightings In New York City - August 23, 2015

Presidential candidate Donald Trump seen at the Air Pegasus West 30th Street Heliport on August 23, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Stewart/GC Images) Michael Stewart / Getty Images Contributor

Just three months ago, the Republican presidential race appeared to be less about policy differences than factors like age, electability and the candidates’ records and likeability. The leading candidates at that time, ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker differed on policy specifics but were similarly conservative and resided mostly within the establishment.

But the rise of Donald Trump has completely reshaped the Republican race. Trump has proposed a starkly different vision for the GOP than establishment figures like Bush. The Republican primary is now a fight between two competing ideologies: what some have dubbed “Trumpism,” which borrows heavily from ideas of Tea Party activists, versus the views of the GOP elite, who helped Bush raised more than $100 million in the first six months of the year.

That divide was illustrated most clearly this week when Trump bashed Jeb Bush not just for his positions on immigration, but for speaking Spanish in interviews and on the campaign trail. “We’re a nation that speaks English, and while we’re in this nation, we should speak English,” Trump said at a press conference on Thursday.

Trump Slams GOP Rivals for 'Attack' on Him 1:37

“English is the language of our country and people that come to this country need to learn English, but that doesn’t mean they stop speaking their native tongue,” Bush said in response. “I think this is kind of bizarre to be honest with you and it sends a pretty ugly signal that somehow we're creating a different standard for one group against the other.”

Bush has cast his bilingualism as both a political asset in reaching Hispanics voters and a sign of his enthusiasm about America’s growing Latino population. To Trump, Bush speaking Spanish, which he does constantly on the campaign trail, is essentially anti-American.

Trump and Bush are only two of the 17 Republican candidates, but their competing ideologies are the story of the 2016 GOP primary so far.

Trump has emphatically rejected the consensus view of Republican elites that the party must moderate its tone and positions to reach minority voters, young people and women. He has repeatedly criticized one of the most famous female journalists in the country, clashed with perhaps the leading Hispanic commentator and rolled out a series of proposals aimed at not only stopping future illegal immigration but sending people already here back to their home countries.

On some economic issues, Trump rejects party orthodoxy because he is more to the left, supporting tax increases for some wealthy Americans and opposing raising the age at which people are eligible for Social Security.

The more conservative wing of the GOP looked weakened after the 2014 elections, when more establishment candidates won most of the key Republican primaries. But if Republican voters pick Trump as their nominee, it will be a rejection of almost the entire apparatus of the Republican Party, its donor class, its elected officials and other leaders, nearly all of whom oppose the mogul.

Bush Fires Back at Trump After Release of Attack Ad 1:10

“THIS DOG WON'T HUNT: The Establ GOP simply refuses to see the writing on the wall. Problem is, soon the wall will collapse on them,” conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham wrote in a Twitter message last week.

She has been a sharp critic of the GOP establishment, particularly the Bush family.

The official Republican Party has a theory about effective politics, and it’s much different than Trump’s. Five months after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to President Obama, the Republican National Committee produced a detailed report calling for a series of changes, particularly increased outreach to minorities, for the GOP to win in 2016.

One of the authors of the report was Sally Bradshaw, who is now one of Bush’s top campaign advisers.

Three of the GOP candidates in particular, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Bush and Rubio, have embraced the ideas in that report, making outreach to minorities and more moderate voters a hallmark of their political brands. Kasich has pushed to have more minority businesses get contracts with his state’s government and created a task force to improve policing in Ohio, like President Obama did nationally. In the Senate, Rubio pushed for a bill to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And he has tried to cast himself as the candidate of millennials, who are disproportionately minorities, repeatedly emphasizing his appreciation for hip-hop artists like Nicki Minaj and Pitbull.

Bush speaks Spanish more than any presidential candidate ever has.

There are 17 Republican candidates, so it’s not yet clear who will remain as the field narrows. And polls this early in a presidential race are rarely predictive.

Walker Shrugs Off Trump Talk in Texas 0:23

But if Trump wins Iowa and some of the other early states in the GOP race and becomes the leading conservative candidate, it will be a victory for the outside forces within the party, fitting in well with mood of those who have been most upset by the Obama era. Trump not only has strongly opposed Obama’s policies, but even questioned if the president is born in the United States. Four years ago, Trump was one of the leading figures in the “birther” movement, which has falsely suggested Obama was born abroad.

Bush, Rubio, Kasich or another more moderate candidate could seek to move right, and defeat Trump by co-opting his views. Mitt Romney took more anti-immigrant stances during the 2012 primary. But such a shift seems very unlikely. Trump is far to the right on immigration, more conservative than almost any GOP elected official. (Take out this sentence, we repeat this idea below). And Bush, in particular has been adamant not to move substantively on the issue.

Most of the Republican elite that has championed Bush, Rubio, Kasich and Walker also supports some kind of immigration reform that creates a path to legalization. And most Republican elites consider calling for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants the kind of idea that would turn off millions of voters and help Democrats win the White House.

So the path is set for a real clash between what some have dubbed “Trumpism” and the views of the Republican elite. If Trump wins, the party elite, which strongly opposes the election of a Democrat, would have to rally behind a nominee who has rejected all of their ideas and their vision of politics. The party would be led by a candidate in Trump who is trying to build a coalition through disaffected white voters, many of whom are wary of the increasingly diverse America. Republican powerbrokers in Washington would have to dump their strategy, which has been fixated on getting more minorities, young voters and women to vote for the GOP.

Bush and the other major mainstream candidates are taking steps to appeal to conservatives, such as Bush’s recent visit to the U.S-Mexican border. But Bush promised when he launched his campaign to refuse to placate the most conservative elements of the GOP during the primary. He has largely stood by that pledge so far. Rubio and Kasich have rejected Trump’s call for ending birthright citizenship.

If Bush, Kasich or Rubio, wins the nomination, he will have not only defeated Trump but conquered a form of Republicanism all three men oppose. But that will not be easy: Trump is right now outperforming Bush, Kasich and Rubio combined in many polls.