- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - After eight years of forcing state Democrats to keep their party’s standard bearer at arm’s length, top Arkansas Republicans are now grappling with a presumptive nominee who wasn’t their first, second or even last choice.

Donald Trump’s emergence as the presumptive nominee has created a conundrum for the state’s top Republican officials, many of whom have spent the past several months campaigning against the billionaire and reality television star. It’s creating an unusually public identity crisis for a party that’s still adjusting to its status as the majority in Arkansas.

“I have never in my life campaigned or voted for someone who I did not believe shared the values I hold,” said state Sen. Bart Hester, who had chaired Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in the state until the Florida senator dropped his White House bid. “I’m still processing whether I can make an exception at this time.”

The reservations being expressed don’t represent a threat of Trump losing Arkansas, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since former President Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996. Republicans control all statewide and federal offices, as well as a majority in both chambers of the Legislature, and the state went for Trump in the primary.

There’s not a chance of Hester or other GOP elected officials backing Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner. But many are expressing misgivings that Trump’s divisive comments about women, immigrants and Muslims will damage the party this fall, and question whether he’s committed to social conservative stances they hold dear.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the state’s top elected Republican, reiterated last week he’ll support Trump if he gets the nomination. But Hutchinson, who had previously backed former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rubio in the presidential race, isn’t shying away from pointing out his disagreements with Trump. The former congressman has previously called some of Trump’s comments “frightening.”

“I do not agree with everything Mr. Trump has said nor have I endorsed every policy he’s announced, but I do believe the Republican Party’s fiscally conservative approach to government and the values we stand for are far greater than what the other side has to offer the American people,” Hutchinson said in a statement last week.

After seeing their numbers dwindle in Arkansas from being tied to President Barack Obama, Democrats are nearly giddy at the prospect of returning the favor for Republicans with Trump. Leading the effort is Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Conner Eldridge, who hopes Trump could be the opening in his uphill battle to unseat Republican Sen. John Boozman.

Eldridge last week released a web ad featuring clips of derogatory comments Trump has made about women, capping it off with an audio clip of Boozman saying he’d support the billionaire if he’s the GOP nominee.

The fears, however, aren’t just about Trump damaging the party in the general election. Republicans also complain that Trump’s attacks against others in the party went well beyond the typical intraparty fights you see in a primary contest. They include Trump floating an unsubstantiated claim that former rival Ted Cruz’s father appeared in a 1963 photograph with John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald - citing a report first published by the National Enquirer.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, who co-chaired Cruz’s campaign in Arkansas, likened Trump to a “carnival barker” and said he’s not ready to back the billionaire’s White House bid.

“He’s got a big job of earning the vote back of many people in the Republican Party,” Ballinger said. “What I would say is Donald Trump needs to go to work now on trying to unify the party. He’s the wrecking ball that came in and tore a lot of people down.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s statement last week that he’s not ready to support Trump right now is offering the path for many top Republicans in the state, who say the presumptive nominee is going to have to earn their vote. Those comments were echoed by Senate President Jonathan Dismang and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, former Rubio supporters who also said they’re not ready to back Trump.

“My hope is (Trump will) show me something over the next weeks and months that he’s taking this serious and that he’s ready for the challenges our country faces, but I’m just not there yet,” Gillam said.

Dismang acknowledged a Trump nomination was a scenario he didn’t see coming.

“There’s just a lot of questions I think still lacking in how he would conduct himself as president,” Dismang said.

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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