The bull in the Republican china shop

Who will save the Republican Party from the destructive and vulgar force of Donald Trump? Several of his rivals for the 2016 presidential nomination have stepped forward, but no common voice has emerged that might effectively purge the party of its current plague.

Trump may yet destroy himself with his crude assaults on newswomen, Mexicans, John McCain and others. But the mayhem offers an opportunity for one or more of his nomination rivals to emerge as the giant-killer and stand out from the so-far uninspiring rest of the GOP pack.

During the debate in Cleveland last week, when Trump got testy and offensive with Fox News moderators over their sharp questions to him, the other nine candidates on the stage held their tongues, speaking out only later, mostly mildly.

It fell to one of the seven left out of the prime debate, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, to beard the lion at length. “I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon, where his behavior becomes about us, not just him,” he told the Washington Post. “People gave Mr. Trump a pass on the stage. I understand that to a point, but we’ve crossed a line here that can’t be ignored. There can be no more tiptoeing around this.”

Graham said he hoped “the party leadership will push hard” against Trump’s language, which pointedly insulted Fox anchor Megyn Kelly when she pressed him on using insulting words about women. After the debate, Trump then made an off-the cuff remark about “blood” taken by many as a reference to menstruation.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had previously phoned Trump and asked him to “tone down” his rhetoric, which Trump brushed off. Graham said he urged Priebus and other leaders to declare that Trump’s message “is not who we are, not where we’re going to take the country and not what we believe.”

The senator, who had polled too low to be invited to the principal debate, went on: “It’s just like driving by a car wreck without rendering aid. Donald Trump is an out-of-control car driving through a crowd of Republicans, and somebody needs to get him out of the car.”

But Trump has only been encouraged by the greater attention coming his way and has said he has no intention of desisting. Graham’s blast was a continuation of his attacks on Trump ever since the tycoon denied that McCain, Graham’s closest friend in the Senate, was a Vietnam War hero because his plane was shot down and he was captured.

Another candidate denied a place on that stage, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, had earlier criticized Trump for conducting a “barking carnival act.” His candidacy, Perry added, “is a cancer on conservatism” that “must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded.” But the Fox News debate format of moderators posing all questions offered little opportunity for the other candidates to do any of that.

A third candidate kept off the main debate stage by low polling numbers, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, said later on CNN that Trump’s remarks about Kelly and women generally were “completely inappropriate and offensive,” and that women understood his reference to “blood.”

Later also, other candidates offered mild rebukes, perhaps with a wary eye on Trump’s more than 20 percent support in those polls.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Monday finally said: “If no one stands up to a bully, a bully will keep doing what he’s doing. Unless someone points out the emperor has no clothes he might walk right to the nomination. We might nominate a reality TV star if we’re not careful. Someone has to point out that the ‘truth-telling’ coming from Donald Trump is bluster, non sequitur and self-aggrandizement.”

In any event, the next televised debate, on CNN, needs to offer a format that facilitates more discussion and debate among the candidates, if only to see whether these critics of Donald Trump have the stuff to take him on directly and collectively before millions of viewers. As a group, they need to make clear he doesn’t speak for the Republican Party, lest it go down with his inevitable political demise.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.