Slowly and reluctantly, Republicans are beginning to take on Donald Trump.

It might just be that they can't avoid the 69-year-old billionaire businessman/entertainer. At every turn, reporters are asking the GOP presidential candidates and other Republicans if they have a problem with Trump, also a White House contender, for referring to illegal immigrants from Mexico as "rapists," among other things.

Some have sought to sidestep the question. Others, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have praised Trump for speaking aggressively about the need to secure Mexican border. But a growing number of GOP 2016'ers are attempting to distance themselves, and the Republican Party, from rhetoric they fear could alienate voters and boost presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Jeb Bush was the first to speak out. More than a week ago, the former Florida governor said during a little-noticed interview with Spanish language media while campaigning in Nevada that he did not agree with Trump's remarks. More recently, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, plus a few veteran party operatives, joined Bush in condemning the New York businessman.

"Well I don't think he's reflecting the Republican Party with his statements about Mexicans. I think that was huge error on his part and, number one, it's wrong," Perry said during an interview on Fox News. "He painted with a very broad brush, and I think that's the problem. Yes, we have some challenges. Nobody knows that border better than I do."

Rubio had this to say, in a statement issued by his campaign: "Trump's comments are not just offensive and inaccurate, but also divisive. Our next president needs to be someone who brings Americans together — not someone who continues to divide. Our broken immigration system is something that needs to be solved, and comments like this move us further from — not closer to — a solution."

Trump has come under fire from some, and enjoyed kudos from others, for extensive comments me made about illegal immigrants from Mexico during an extemporaneous speech he delivered June 16 announcing his run for president. The impact of the remarks received extra attention because, for the first time, Trump was speaking as a presidential candidate, not a hard-charging businessman or flamboyant reality television host.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you," he said last month. "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

In a statement issued on Monday, Trump attempted to clarify his remarks, but did not back away or apologize. "I don't see how there is any room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the statement I made on June 16th during my Presidential announcement speech … and yet this statement is deliberately distorted by the media."

It's hard to find a veteran Republican political professional who thinks that Trump's rhetoric helps the GOP, although some claim its impact is negligible. In the 2012 campaign, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney garnered 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, a contributing factor in his loss to President Obama. Romney was deemed to have blown his chance to woo Hispanics and other minorities for making far less incendiary statements than has Trump. Romney's sin? Saying that he favored a policy of "self-deportation" for illegal immigrants.

The problem for the Republicans isn't that Trump opposes illegal immigration, said Daniel Garza executive director of the Libre Initiative, a conservative group that focuses on Hispanic outreach. Rather, it is that the businessman's comments are likely to be perceived by Hispanics as broadly anti-immigrant, and that perception is a killer for the GOP at the ballot box. To improve upon the party's 2012 showing, the eventual Republican nominee doesn't have to support amnesty for illegal immigrants, but he does have to show appreciation for immigrants' contributions to American society and be willing to discuss immigration reform.

Publicly repudiating Trump's problematic comments, as some Republicans have done, is a good start, said Garza, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration.

"Whether the other candidates like it or not, there is no question Mr. Trump's careless comments have become part of the narrative associated to the Republican primary battle," he said. "My sense is that Latino voters fully expect to hear from the other candidates where they stand in relation to Mr. Trump's position — and that they will have to be clear and unequivocal."

Despite the risks of a similar result in 2016, some Republican operatives say there is nothing to gain by calling out Trump, even with the media continuing to press the issue. After Rubio criticized Trump, the businessman responded with his usual flair, taking to Twitter to lambaste the senator, while an unnamed adviser called the Floridian a liar. A Republican operative who noted the exchange said Rubio would have been better off leaving well enough alone.

"Trump is a suicide bomber," said this Republican, who is not affiliated with any presidential candidate. "As a competing campaign, your only hope to avoid the blast is that he doesn't find a reason to show up at your doorstep. Anyone who utters the name Trump runs the risk of a seven-day jihad from a guy who has absolutely no sense of appropriateness or decency."

Disclosure: The author's wife works as an adviser to Scott Walker.