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Presidential hopeful's march stirs growing sense of dread among Republicans

The prospect of Trump winning the Republican primary had been the stuff of Washington jokes, whispered hallway conversations and eye-rolls, even as he led in public opinion polls for months and dominated debate after debate.

Donald Trump's regular face

U.S. Republicans in Washington are coming to grips with what many of them not long ago considered an unimaginable reality: Donald Trump is likely to be their presidential nominee and standard-bearer.

But with the brash billionaire now winning three straight contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, denial is giving way to a mostly gloomy acceptance that he may have too much momentum to be stopped, especially if wins big in key Southern primaries next week that look favorable to him.

"It fills all of us with concern and dread,” said Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has endorsed fellow Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, considered the main hope of the Republican establishment to derail Trump’s march to the nomination.

Trump has vowed to scrap U.S. trade deals, slap a tariff on imported goods and raise taxes on hedge-fund managers, as well as retain some sort of mandate to purchase health insurance - clashing with the free-market principles that have long underpinned Republican economic policy.

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Some Republicans in Congress, such as Flake and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said a Trump nomination would do enormous damage to the party and predicted a heavy election defeat in November to the eventual Democratic nominee.

"I am like on the team that bought a ticket on the Titanic after we saw the movie,” said Graham, contending that Trump would be “slaughtered” in the general election.

In a Republican presidential debate in Houston on Thursday night, another Trump rival, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, challenged him on his electability, citing ties to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton such as a donation to the Clinton Foundation.

Trump responded by ridiculing Cruz for his inability to win more than the early voting state of Iowa and taunted him for being behind the billionaire in opinion polls in Cruz's home state of Texas.

Said Trump, "If I can't beat her, you're really gonna get killed, aren't you?"

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Another Rubio supporter, Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida, told Reuters he would not back Trump if he were the nominee. “If the nominee is a fraud, and someone who’s offensive, and incapable of being an effective president like Donald Trump, I won’t support him,” Curbelo said.

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