Anyone who a year ago picked Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to be the two leading Republican candidates heading into the Iowa Caucuses either (i) is a liar, or (ii) should invest heavily in the lottery because they are beyond lucky.

Certainly, the powers that be in the Republican Party were not expecting it. Here’s what a Fox News poll looked like in January 2015:

The pollster didn’t even bother to ask about Trump. And Cruz was in low single digits. Now Trump is on top in the national polls and Cruz is in second place. In Iowa, three polls released today show Cruz leading, a dead heat, and Trump leading.

When Trump rose over the summer, the Republican establishment lampooned him as a circus clown who would fade quickly. But he hasn’t faded, and if anything has grown in influence. Cruz, hated intensively by many of his fellow Republicans in Congress because of his willingness to take on the leadership, also was a suprise. Jeb Bush was supposed to be at the top, and then Scott Walker was the acceptable conservative candidate. Jeb has faded and Walker dropped out.

So how has the Republican establishment reacted to the fact that two people it didn’t want are commanding the polling as of now?

I think the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of Grief is helpful:

1. Denial — The first reaction is denial. In this stage individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.

2. Anger — When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, it becomes frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”; “Why would this happen?”.

3. Bargaining — The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief.

Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.

4. Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”

During the fourth stage, the individual becomes saddened by the mathematical probability of death. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.

5. Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”; “Nothing is impossible.”

In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions.

Something interesting has been happening. The establishment is nearing Stage 5 for Trump — acceptance. The new talking point is that Trump is the lesser of two evils; someone the leadership can deal with, as distasteful as it might seem; a deal maker who will do okay in a deal town like D.C.

As to Cruz, the GOP establishment is still in Stage 2 – Anger.

They hate him. Bob Dole and Trent Lott side with Trump, as does Orrin Hatch. While the hate might be very personal for some, I think it goes deeper.

Cruz would create systemic change in the GOP, whereas Trump would change only the top spot:

It was no accident that two Iowa GOP icons — Chuck Grassley and Bob Dole — attacked Ted Cruz the day after Iowa’s Republican governor said a vote for the Texas senator would be bad for the lead-off caucus state.

It is part of a fascinating and once unthinkable calculation by leading establishment figures that Donald Trump is the lesser of two evils at the top of the Republican presidential pack — and defeating Cruz in Iowa is now part of this strategy.

To be sure, these establishment figures still worry that both Trump and Cruz would hurt Republican candidates down ballot. So why settle on Trump as the least objectionable of the two?

One leading GOP strategist involved in the effort put it this way: “If Trump loses we wash our hands of him. Cruz will think we need to be more crazy and be a long-term nightmare.”

Translation: Trump would be a one time worry, but Cruz, just 45, would likely blame the moderate establishment if he lost as the GOP nominee and run again — having had a national campaign to build a stronger organization.

The hate for Cruz also is about the party’s power, and the access and jobs for those who think they can cut deals with Trump. One RNC insider summed it up for The New York Times:

“We can live with Trump,” said Richard F. Hohlt, a veteran lobbyist, reflecting his colleagues’ sentiment at a Republican National Committee meeting last week in Charleston, S.C. “Do they all love Trump? No. But there’s a feeling that he is not going to layer over the party or install his own person. Whereas Cruz will have his own people there.”