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Reince Priebus: GOP 'In Much Better Shape' Than 4 Years Ago


Here's one take on the Republican presidential primary season so far. Donald Trump, who has hardly any history with the party, is leading a field of senators and governors. The top candidates in the first two contests, Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, are engaged in a political food fight that escalated today from verbal to legal. Trump's campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to Cruz's campaign demanding that he take a negative ad about Trump off the air.

The party's hopes of connecting with Latino voters are jeopardized by a frontrunner who is held in especially low esteem by Latino voters. Some might sense a party at risk of a November disaster, not Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, who joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.

REINCE PRIEBUS: Well, thank you for having me on the show.

SIEGEL: Let's take this - take up this Trump-Cruz business first. Donald Trump sent a threatening letter to Cruz. Cruz says, if you're threatening to sue, go ahead. Do you see any role for the Republican National Committee or for you, personally, as a referee - someone or some institution to say, cool it, guys.

PRIEBUS: Well, I think that primaries have a way of saying that for me. So eventually, as the ball gets rolling downhill in these states, it has a way of ending some of these food fights that you're seeing across the country, which, you know - our party's not the only one that's having a contentious primary. So are the Democrats.

SIEGEL: In a press release earlier this week, Trump said that one way he can fight back against what he calls Ted Cruz's lies is - and I'm quoting now - to bring a lawsuit against him relative to the fact that he was born in Canada and therefore cannot be president. And then he says if he doesn't take down his false ads, he's going to do that. Additionally, Trump said the Republican National Committee should intervene, and if they don't, they are in default of their pledge to me. Will the Republican National Committee take any step toward either challenging or clarifying Senator Cruz's eligibility?

PRIEBUS: We're not going to get involved in the middle of these candidate battles. I mean, in the pledge itself - simply says that if you want to be a candidate in our party and you want to go to the convention and you want to participate in the process, then you ought to agree that you're going to support the Republican nominee no matter who that is.

SIEGEL: After the last midterm elections when Republicans did significantly better with Latino voters than the 27 percent share that Mitt Romney was - seemed to have gotten in 2012, you sounded very satisfied. Now, I mean, there's been a poll which shows that 55 percent of Latinos have a very negative opinion of the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, and there's another 12 percent that just have a negative opinion of him. Is your effort to connect with Latinos dead if Trump's the nominee?

PRIEBUS: I don't think our effort's dead at all because if you look at what some of the issues that we're facing in the Hispanic community, it's the fact that we haven't been in a Hispanic community, which is what we've been doing at the RNC for the past three years. What we're doing is putting an infrastructure in place so that we can actually make the case in Hispanic communities when we get a nominee now.

SIEGEL: But what do you say to the observation that the case has been made. Trump is the one candidate about whom groups have strong opinions. They're not unsure, and everybody's heard of him. There's not a lot to learn about him.

PRIEBUS: Well, I don't know about that. I think - listen; I don't know who's going to be the nominee. If that's the case, I'm sure that these candidates will talk to those communities, will answer questions, will have plenty of time to campaign and obviously tell them why they'd be a better choice than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. And it's going to be up to them to make sure that that ship is put on the right course..

SIEGEL: And just, you know, to return to this whole question about that cease-and-desist letter today - if I hear you, Donald Trump should not expect any answer from the Republican National Committee even if he publicly is asking for one in this.

PRIEBUS: We're not going to get involved in commenting and quarterbacking, you know, analysis of campaign advertisements. And it happens in probably every campaign in America, these sorts of disputes over advertisement.

SIEGEL: But in this case, given what's happened this year, can Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment of not speaking ill of a fellow Republican - can that pretty well be laid to rest as something out of a different time?

PRIEBUS: Well, I mean, maybe, but I think that you're going to always expect some jabs and some punches and pushes and shoves. There's a little drama, but I think for the most, part we're in a much better shape today than we were four years ago. And if you look at the Democrats, they're in the ditch, and so the main thing here is making sure that we come out of this unified at the end. We're going to have a long time to get that done by the time we get to convention and after and then win in November.

SIEGEL: Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, thanks for talking with us.

PRIEBUS: Hey, thank you, Sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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