WASHINGTON, March 4 (UPI) -- After a debate defined by personal insults, GOP leaders and mainstream Republicans said the cringe-worthy showing made one thing clear: The party is handing the presidency to the Democrats.
Republican pundits said the interaction between front-runner Donald Trump and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz was a shameful display of immaturity. Matthew Continetti, of the Washington Free Beacon, wondered if Trump was purposely trying to tank the GOP "because he identified the GOP as the weaker of the two parties."
"There was no winner at the debate, but there was certainly a loser: The GOP," Continetti said. "It started this election cycle in a strong position, and is now on the precipice of nominating a political neophyte, a caricature of everything liberals hate about Republicans, whose unfavorable ratings are sky high and who loses to Hillary Clinton in practically every poll."
Many Republicans took to social media quickly Thursday night into Friday to condemn the verbal sparring among the three candidates.
"My party is committing suicide on national television," said Jamie Johnson, a former aide to Rick Perry's now-defunct presidential campaign.
At the same time, rank-and-file Republicans at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland expressed mixed feelings and said the divisiveness in the party has caused acrimony among attendees.
"CPAC is supposed to be the safe haven. I'm supposed to come here and be like, these are my people," said Laura Meyers, a senior at Kansas State University who supported Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. "You're not supposed to come to CPAC and fight with people who are in the same political party as you are."
Trump supporters at CPAC said the possibility of the party snubbing him may drive the businessman to a third-party run, which would be another problem for the GOP.
"I think it's wrong, really wrong" what the party is doing to "gang up on Trump," said Kathy Coley, a nurse from Florida. "What does that do in the general?"
"If the Republican Party wants to be stupid and cut off your nose to spite your face, he's not going to take it lying down," she said. "He'll do the independent route."
Breitbart said the debate was narrowly focused on trying to trip up Trump, while making Rubio look better. Breitbart's Editor-at-Large, John Nolte, said Fox News is "nothing more than a super PAC for Sen. Marco Rubio."
Even before the debate, a frenetic scramble to stop Trump was gaining momentum.
Paperwork to create a super PAC called Committee to Draft Speaker Ryan was filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, has instructed his closest advisers to explore the possibility of stopping Trump by suppressing his delegate count at the Republican National Convention, CNN reported.