Once the news of Donald Trump's lewd and lascivious comments about women broke, there was only one relevant question for Republicans: What the heck do we do now?
I asked that question to a slew of prominent former and current Republican elected officials, media consultants and pollsters -- all of whom acknowledged there are simply no good options this late in the election for a party that has latched itself to Trump for months.
"I'm not sure which is more useless – endorsing or un-endorsing," said Curt Anderson, a longtime Republican media consultant. "This could create the climate for an every-man-for-himself kind of election."
Anderson's sentiment was echoed in a number of conversations I had Friday evening. There's no blueprint for what is happening within the GOP right now, sources told me. Everyone is in a sort of political purgatory -- stuck between the fact that 10 days ago most Republican candidates were ok with Trump because he was running surprisingly competitively at the top of the ticket and the developments of the last six hours that make it plain that Trump could now be toxic to their chances of winning.
"[Trump] is still competitive so they put the best face on it," said former Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis of his fellow GOPers. "If he has another sub par debate performance and his numbers tumble... it could cost them dearly. But candidates who have made their bed with him are stuck."
Trump seems nearly certain to hunker down with his family and top aides over the 48 hours between now and Sunday night's second presidential debate. A planned visit to Wisconsin to campaign alongside House Speaker Paul D. Ryan Saturday was scotched Friday evening, with Trump releasing a statement saying that he would remain in New York to prep for the debate. (Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will go in Trump's stead.)
My conversations Friday night suggest that Trump will likely be given until the debate on Sunday before there is any sort of mass abandonment of his candidacy by prominent Republicans. "I expect a lot of folks will try to wait through the weekend to gauge how Trump handles this and how meaningfully he can manage this in the Sunday debate," said Republican strategist Alex Vogel. "I don't expect the Speaker or [Senate] Leader [Mitch McConnell] to officially modify their endorsement until they see how the weekend goes. "
That's the plan -- for now. Having covered similar situations -- although there is no direct analog for this one -- the storyline often runs beyond the initial reaction. As in, Republicans may believe they can wait until Sunday night or Monday morning to make a final call on what to do about Trump. But, this is such a massive story and we are so close from the election that candidates simply may not have the luxury of waiting to see how it all plays out over the next two days.
Already it appears that the 'wait-and-see' approach is springing leaks. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) tweeted late Friday that he would not be voting for Trump.
One thing is clear: Trump cannot be removed from the ballot at this late date. (Early voting has already begun in a number of states.) That means that unless Trump removes himself, which seems both unlikely and impractical given that thousands of votes have already been cast, every Republican candidate running for reelection will be sharing a ballot with him in a month's time. Decisions are going to have to be made -- and quick.
John Weaver, an adviser to John Kasich's presidential campaign, was blunt when asked what Republican candidates should do in the wake of the Trump revelations.
"Donald Trump is going to lose in an electoral college landslide that will endanger the GOP hold on the U.S. Senate, House, and the conservative movement (for generations)," Weaver told me. "Party leaders and elected officials have an obligation to the United States, to our party, and to themselves to disavow not only Trump's comments, but Trump himself. To do otherwise harms their own integrity, of course, but more importantly harms America and the party, in that order."