JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the divisions and dilemmas inside the Republican Party.
There's growing GOP opposition to Donald Trump, the front-runner in the race for the White House, especially since his latest comments on denying Muslims entry into this country. What do these divisions mean for Republicans and their leaders?
We explore that with former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber. For the record, he's formally endorsed Jeb Bush. And Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times.
And welcome to both of you.
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER, (R) Minnesota: Thank you, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Jonathan, let me start with you.
You were in South Carolina on Monday night, when Donald Trump made those comments about Muslims. First of all, remind us, what was the reaction in the room where he spoke, and then what's been the reaction since then?
JONATHAN MARTIN, The New York Times: Quite enthusiastic from his supporters, a lot of applause, a sort of prolonged ovation, many folks standing up, some yells. There was approval.
I talked to many of them afterwards, too, and I think it was easy to find people in that crowd that supported Mr. Trump's plan. If you dig a little bit deeper, though, you can find some people that I think want to see the border tightened and want to see immigration tightened, want to see more vetting towards those coming into the country, but are a little bit leery about going as far as Trump plans.
So I don't think it's as sort of cut and dried as perhaps the crowd reaction may have been in real time. But, obviously, in the days since then, there is deep concern in the party about the implications of this, barring an entire faith of folks coming into the country, and the concern is not just the fact that it's Trump saying these bombastic things. It's the fallout that could hurt the party on down-ballot next year, too, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Vin Weber, we have pointed out you have endorsed Jeb Bush. But you also…
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: A long time ago.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A long time ago.
But you talk to Republicans about the country. What are picking up?
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: I don't know of a single Republican leader that is not appalled at what Donald Trump is saying, and I don't know of a single Republican strategist that doesn't think he poses a huge threat to the Republican Party, increasingly so, whether he wins or loses.
And that's a great, great concern. At the grassroots level, you know, it's a mixed bag, as Jonathan points out. I think Trump is a classic demagogue, and the demagogue succeeds by preying on the fears, legitimate fears sometimes, that people have, and they respond.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it that the opposition is born out of? Is it just — is it this comment about Muslims? Because there have been so many other comments he has made that have been controversial. What's generating this?
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: You reach a tipping point, I think. I think you had his comments about Mexican Americans. You had his comments about disabled people. You had his comments about McCain, which can be extrapolated to veterans. And now you have the comments about Muslim Americans.
And this is kind of the one that went over the edge and convinced people this is a real serious threat to brand the Republican Party as a party of bigotry and intolerance. And, again, I want to emphasize, no Republican leader that I am aware of shares any of these views.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Jonathan Martin, you're, again, obviously, talking to Republicans.
JONATHAN MARTIN: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What's the genesis? What's behind this concern? Is it that they're concerned he's going to win the nomination?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it concern that he will leave the party and go run as an independent?
I mean, what is…
JONATHAN MARTIN: I think it's both of those factors, and a third one. It's that, nominee or not, as Vin said, the fallout from this is going to have an impact on the Republican Party, because these comments are going to be linked to candidates next year.
Look, I think, for months, there was frankly widespread denial in the Republican Party that Trump could be the nominee or that Trump was formidable. It was the summer of Trump. Folks said, oh, this will be a passing fancy.
Well, here it is, we're coming up on Christmas, and he is still overwhelmingly the front-runner for his party's nomination. And I think you finally see people in the party coming to terms with that, right when he sort of ups the rhetoric level to new heights. And that's the concern.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it more — excuse me — is it more that they think they're worried that he will go on to win the election and become president and will impose his ideas, or is it they're worried that he would lose to the Democrats?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Oh, it's the latter. It's not that he's going to be president. It's that he could either be the nominee and cause a landslide wipeout for the party, where he would lose…
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Or lose the nomination and split the party.
JONATHAN MARTIN: Right.
Or go to the convention next summer and offer some kind of demands or give more speeches that hurt the party. There's a lot of scenarios, none of them very good for the GOP.
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: And all of this, by the way, coming from somebody whose Republican credentials are very thin.
Everybody else running for the Republican nomination has some right to say they are more or less lifelong Republicans. Donald Trump has kind of picked this party as his vehicle. He's really not a Republican.
JONATHAN MARTIN: But what's stunning, Judy, is that nobody is hitting him on that or anything else about his comments, his background in business, his previous political stances. He is untouched.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean on the other parts of his resume. Is that what you mean?
JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, exactly.
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Jonathan, let me — we have got to give credit where credit is due.
I will say one very positive thing. Paul Ryan did a really good thing for our party today. He didn't have to speak on this subject. He said that he didn't have to speak on it. He chose to speak on it, and he spoke very well.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yesterday. You mean about the Muslim…
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: Yesterday, about the Muslim comments.
JONATHAN MARTIN: But I'm talking about a sustained effort to go after Donald Trump on TV in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Look, in 2003, Democrats were concerned about Howard Dean losing to George Bush.
VIN WEBER: Right.
JONATHAN MARTIN: And they went after him in a very aggressive way.
This is comparable to that, but I think the threat that Trump poses is much more serious than Dean. And where's the money?
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: But the Democrats had one clear alternative, John Kerry, who ultimately got the nomination.
Part of our problem on the Republican side is, there is not one clear alternative to get behind. I'm for Bush, but I can't say he's the only alternative.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the fact that these crowds, as Jonathan just described, that Trump is drawing, they appear to agree with what — and there was a new poll out today that Bloomberg News — that was reported on that indicates there's a large percentage of voters who agree, Republican voters who agree with what Donald Trump is saying about Muslims?
How is the party dealing with that?
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: That's very troublesome, beyond troublesome.
I have to say that it — you know what? The only way that you can beat a demagogue, which is what he is, is to have a strong message of leadership from someone else, whether the someone else is a Republican alternative or the president of the United States.
And so far, those voters are not hearing a strong enough message, strong enough, responsible message to sort of overshadow the strong demagogic message coming out of Donald Trump.
JONATHAN MARTIN: And I think, also, those numbers, Judy, explain some of the reluctance among the other candidates to go after him that hard. It's a hard reality for the party to swallow, but…
JUDY WOODRUFF: Some have, and some have been less vigorous.
JONATHAN MARTIN: Yes. But it's a hard reality for the party to swallow. A lot of their grassroots voters in fact support these kind of ideas.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will leave it there, continue to watch it.
Jonathan Martin, Vin Weber, thank you.
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: It's interesting, if not positive.