WASHINGTON — As Sen. Lindsey Graham sees it, making a choice between real estate mogul Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the Republican presidential nomination is like picking between being “shot or poisoned.”

“You get the same result,” the South Carolina Republican said Thursday of the difference between the leading contenders. To Graham, who gave up on his own presidential bid a month ago, either of the candidates loses to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And the nomination of either Republican front-runner would mean “death” for the party’s chances in November.

“Dishonest beats crazy. Hillary Clinton’s going to be seen as a dishonest candidate. If we nominate crazy, which I think Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign policy is … if we nominate somebody who is a rigid ideologue (like Cruz), we lose. Dishonest loses to normal,” Graham said. “Just pick somebody normal. Pick somebody out of the phone book and we win.”

Graham, who has endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is not alone among establishment Republicans who are confronting the possibility that Cruz, if he continues to gain ground, stands within reach of becoming the party’s presidential nominee. Many Republican lawmakers also fear that the Texas senator could ruin Republicans’ chances of hanging onto control of the Senate in November’s elections, alienating voters in a half-dozen key swing states with his hardline stances on issues from immigration to abortion.

Yet mainstream Republicans say they’re essentially powerless to stop him. Any attempt to weaken Cruz in his primary campaign against Trump and other Republican candidates risks bolstering his argument that he’s running against the “Washington cartel.” So there’s little Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans can do beyond watch in dismay as Cruz, isolated and boxed out in the clubby Senate after repeatedly angering colleagues, rises in the polls in first-voting Iowa and elsewhere.

With Cruz as the nominee, “state and local races that take place in ideologically moderate electorates could be a bloodbath,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff and a Republican strategist. Vulnerable Republican senators are partly insulated by strong campaign organizations, “but there is no question their job could get tougher,” Holmes said.

Some Republican lawmakers and pollsters view Cruz as more problematic than Trump, since Trump might have more cross-over appeal to independents. Polling shown to House Republicans recently identified Cruz as the most difficult presidential nominee for any of them to share a ballot with.

“”He would definitely be a negative,” said Rep. Pete King of New York, who represents an evenly divided Long Island district. King dismissed Cruz as a “fraud” and said, “I don’t know of anyone else in Washington, certainly, who gets this opposition from his own people. … I’m talking about people as conservative as he is who just can’t stand him.”

In one clear barometer, four Republican senators have endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s bid for president, while none has backed Cruz.

The Republicans spoke out the day after Bob Dole, the well-respected former senator from Kansas and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, said it would be cataclysmic if Cruz were nominated.

“I think we ought to pay attention to grand, senior statesmen like Senator Dole,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah Told the New York Times. “He’s seen it all.”


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