Trump, left, and Cruz at the Jan. 14 debate. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

The Republican establishment — once seen as the force that would destroy Donald Trump’s outsider candidacy — is now learning to live with it, with some elected and unelected leaders saying they see an upside to Trump as the nominee.

In the past few days, Trump has received unlikely public praise from GOP luminaries who said they would prefer him to his main rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

In private, some veteran conservative Republicans have been reaching out to Trump. And Trump himself called the ultimate establishment figure in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for a talk late last year.

“If it came down to Trump or Cruz, there is no question I’d vote for Trump,” said former New York mayor and 2008 presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has not endorsed a candidate. “As a party, we’d have a better chance of winning with him, and I think a lot of Republicans look at it that way.”

This warming toward Trump comes after establishment favorites such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have failed to reach the top tier. It signals that, among the party’s entrenched elites, there is a growing fear that none of those candidates may be able to beat both Trump and Cruz.

Ted Cruz has been at odds with the Republican party establishment for most of his time as a senator – and that doesn't look likely to change soon. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Many have decided that Trump — for all his faults — is better. For one thing, many Republicans in Congress especially despise Cruz, who has a history of picking long-shot fights and blaming other Republicans when he is unsuccessful.

Beyond that personal hostility, there’s a political calculation. If Cruz is nominated, they say, he could alienate swing voters with his brand of scorched-earth conservatism. If he’s elected, they fear, Cruz would shut Republican moderates out of power.

Perhaps most notably, parts of the establishment are starting to think Trump can win.

“Between Trump and Cruz, it’s not even close,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a longtime House moderate who has not endorsed a candidate. “Cruz isn’t a good guy, and he’d be impossible as president. People don’t trust him. And regardless of what your concern is with Trump, he’s pragmatic enough to get something done. I also don’t see malice in Trump like I see with Cruz.”

This week, the New York Times quoted another major Republican figure — former Senate majority leader and presidential nominee Robert J. Dole — as saying he would prefer Trump to Cruz. “Nobody likes him,” Dole said of Cruz, adding that the senator would bring on a “cataclysmic” loss as the GOP’s nominee.

But other Republicans still believe it is impossible to choose between the two, because they believe that either would be a disaster as the nominee — and that others can eventually rise.

“Whether you jump off a cliff or drive off a cliff, you’re still off a cliff,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who recently dropped out of the race and endorsed Bush.

In theory, that feeling — and the way that Trump and Cruz have torn each other down lately — could still provide an opening for a more centrist candidate. The problem is that there are at least four such contenders, and most of their advertising attacks have been concentrated on each other rather than Trump.

Cruz has tried to turn the situation to his advantage, alleging while campaigning in New Hampshire this week that “the establishment” was shorting ­Rubio’s stock and buying into Trump, who would deliver whatever the party elites desired.

“You’re seeing the Washington establishment dumping their candidates,” Cruz told Sean Hannity on his radio show. “For example, a lot of the establishment had been behind Marco Rubio. They’ve decided now that he doesn’t have a path to victory. They’re moving to Donald Trump. We’re seeing that more and more, and you know, it’s kind of curious. Donald is publicly boasting about how all the big establishment players are getting behind him.”

Trump fired back Thursday at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, saying that Cruz was “slimy” and unpopular in the Senate, whereas he would be able to “get things done.”

“I can tell you, they like me, those guys,” Trump said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, folks. We’ve got to make deals. We don’t want to sign executive orders. We want to make good deals.”

Within much of the conservative movement, however, Cruz remains well liked and Trump is viewed warily. On Friday, two leading magazines of the conservative establishment will issue strongly worded articles denouncing Trump.

William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said in an interview that his publication’s anti-Trump editorial will call the front-
runner a “confidence man.” He urged conservatives who are talking themselves into supporting Trump to stop and think again.

“Our presidents have been a mixed lot, but no true tin-pot Caesars have yet occupied the Oval Office. . . . Until now?” Kristol writes in the editorial. “Is the task of today’s American conservatism to normalize Trump and Trumpism? Surely not.”

At National Review, writer ­Yuval Levin said an anti-Trump manifesto in the magazine will argue that the billionaire is not a small-government conservative. Instead, Trump has called for huge new government projects, including a wall on the Mexican border and the mass deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

“Trump is making the case [that] the answer for everything is good management, which ought to be a warning for conservatives,” Levin said.

But Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor and a 2012 presidential candidate, said that “the light bulb has gone on for a lot of people, and it wasn’t on a couple of months ago,” that Trump might be the nominee.

“Even though he’s a billionaire from New York, he sounds and looks like somebody you’d meet in the heartland who’s ticked off about the economy and government, and he projects the strength that he’d actually do something about it,” Pawlenty said. “He doesn’t look and sound like all the other politicians who yap and yap and don’t get anything done.”

Some in the party have gone to talk to Trump, hoping that he will remember them and their ideas if he wins.

“It’s our job to nurture the candidates, to bring them into the fold, including Trump,” said Arthur Laffer, a famed conservative economist who met with Trump in the fall. Laffer said he has met with Cruz, too.

Asked whether he would be willing to serve in a Trump administration, Laffer said, “I’m 75. If a Republican were to win, I’d love to have the role I had with President Reagan, advising when I can on economics.”

Trump himself has not changed much. He remains a living, breathing, shouting contradiction to many of the things the GOP elite believes in. He is opposed to the party’s signature proposals to reduce Medicare and Social Security spending. His incendiary comments about undocumented immigrants from Mexico has upended the party’s plan to attract Hispanic voters.

Yet among some in the GOP, there’s a sense that the extreme rhetoric that has fueled Trump’s campaign — including the comments about immigrants and his call to temporarily bar Muslim foreigners from entering the United States — is just talk. In a general election, they believe, he could say something different.

“With Trump, hey, it’s just a deal,” said Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican strategist. “The primary’s one deal, that’s done. If he were to be the nominee, the next deal’s a general [election]. You can see him saying, ‘We had to do what we had to do to win the primary, but now’s the general, and we’ve got to beat Hillary.’ You can see him pivot on a dime.

“But with Cruz, oof, you’re looking at a Republican Party that wouldn’t win the vote of a young person, a young woman or a minority for a generation,” Castellanos said.

Cruz is seen as inflexible — and inflexibly antagonistic toward most of his own party.

“Trump does not have any particular enmities down here. I don’t think anyone gets up in the morning and is irritated with him,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview. “That’s not how it is with Cruz.”

The animus toward Cruz in Republican circles can be traced back to 2013, his first year in the Senate. While Cruz had run a contentious primary campaign in 2012 against an establishment foe, it did not mark him as someone who would alienate party elders and he began as a star encouraged by the leadership.

That goodwill quickly evaporated as Cruz began to ignore his Republican leaders and stoke the GOP base about what he saw as the party’s inaction and failure. Rather than building friendships on the inside, he built them in the outer but influential corners of the conservative movement.

The urgency of his ambition startled party brass. By April 2013, friends of Cruz had begun to whisper with reporters about private conversations they had with him about the possibility of a 2016 bid for the White House. By that August, he was appearing in Iowa.

Then came the federal government shutdown, where he huddled with House conservatives and urged them to oppose their own leadership. Cruz clashed with McConnell in the Senate. He called the brokered compromise “lousy” and warned of “consequences.”

Conservative talk radio hailed him as a lonely hero. But other Republicans felt he had raised the public’s expectations by promising the impossible — and then demonized Capitol colleagues when it didn’t come true.

Trump has made efforts to build relationships where Cruz has few. According to a McConnell spokesman, he called the GOP leader late last year to catch up.

Cruz also broke one of the few true taboos in politics when he implied McConnell was a liar in a speech on the floor of the Senate last July. Other Republicans were so infuriated by this that they began showing their anger openly, once denying Cruz the routine courtesy of a “second” when Cruz asked for more time to speak.

“They think he’s fundamentally dishonest at times in the way he operates — doing things for his own benefit and calling the Senate Republican leader a liar,” said Vin Weber, a former congressman. “That has forced some people to look past all of Trump’s issues and think about what he could offer.”

Jose A. DelReal in Las Vegas, David Weigel in New Hampshire and Anu Narayanswamy in Washington contributed to this report.