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A Trump win in Nevada could mean 'dark reality' for GOP

As Nevada voters head to what are expected to be low turnout GOP caucuses Tuesday night, time is running out for Wall Street and the rest of the establishment Republican Party to stop Donald Trump's inexorable march to the nomination.

Trump is expected to win big Tuesday, though no reliable polling exists, so pretty much anything could happen. But expecting a flashy, billionaire real estate executive with long-standing ties to the gambling industry to lose in the land of Las Vegas is not a smart bet.

So assuming Trump rolls up another win, how does he not march on to the nomination?

For many in the establishment it's literally an unthinkable moment because many thought it would never come to this. For months, many in the party, including former establishment champion Jeb Bush, have been deep in denial.

A man dressed as Elvis meets republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as he greets supporters after speaking during a campaign rally at South Point Arena in Las Vegas, NV on Monday Feb. 22, 2016.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
A man dressed as Elvis meets republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as he greets supporters after speaking during a campaign rally at South Point Arena in Las Vegas, NV on Monday Feb. 22, 2016.

After all, how could a vulgar reality TV star who called Mexican immigrants rapists and proposed banning Muslims from entering the U.S. while denigrating John McCain for getting captured in Vietnam and promising neomercantilist trade wars with China and Mexico possibly be the presidential nominee of a major American political party?

The view among elites on Wall Street and throughout corporate America was that after some laughs, voters would come to their senses and reject Trump. This view held that somehow, someway the fates would simply never allow Trump to win.

This could still wind up being true. But time is running short. Following Bush's exit, the establishment is furiously rallying around Florida Sen. Marco Rubio but it may be too late. It's not clear that Rubio can score a win in any of the March 1 Super Tuesday states. Trump has big leads both in the South and in Northeastern states including Massachusetts. His ragtag coalition, which includes less-educated, lower-income and older voters along with angry GOP moderates and independents, shows no signs of flagging.

And for now, the non-Trump vote will continue to be fractured among Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Kasich and Carson have no shot at winning but are both infected by the presidential ambition virus that keeps zombie hopes alive and makes dropping out difficult if not impossible.

Cruz, whose campaign is beset by allegations of dirty tricks, could score a home-state win in Texas on Super Tuesday making it less likely that he leaves before the next big set of primaries on March 15. That day could seal the nomination for Trump if he takes down Rubio in Florida.

It's still possible that the fight could go all the way to the GOP convention in Cleveland in July. But if Trump rolls in with a big delegate lead, how could the GOP deny him the nomination without causing a major revolt among his supporters that could drive the Democrats to an easy win in November?

The best chance the other remaining Republicans have to finally halt the Trump parade is to take him on directly with fury and passion. Cruz, who has the most overlap with Trump among his supporters, has done this to a degree. But mostly he has fended off attacks from Trump that he is a serial cheater and liar. Rubio has been content to battle it out in the establishment "lane" while mostly staying away from Trump.

This cannot continue if Republicans want to avoid Trump as their standard bearer. Trump is highly vulnerable over his past as a Democrat who strongly supported abortion rights, criticized Republicans for their tough immigration stance and cozied up to the Clinton family. But to make Trump's army see these things, his rivals need to prosecute the case in TV ads and on the stump full time. Until that happens, Trump will continue to win states and the outcome that many in the establishment long dismissed as a joke that could never happen will become a very dark reality.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.