With the election just three months away, a spirited debate is taking place among Republicans about what to do with their own nominee: Should members of the party — especially vulnerable congressional candidates — simply distance themselves from Donald Trump or should the GOP dump him altogether?

A gap in enthusiasm for Trump has always existed among Republican leaders, but when the candidate was riding high following the party's national convention it seemed, for a moment, that the GOP had dutifully embraced its nominee. Fast forward to the weeks-long controversy surrounding Trump's criticism of two Gold Star parents and any semblance of unity had already unraveled. Matters were made worse on Tuesday when the untamable billionaire said "Second Amendment people" could stop Hillary Clinton from pursuing an anti-gun agenda if she makes it to the White House.

As one lifelong Republican privately noted, the GOP is approaching "self-preservation mode" where Republicans will "do everything they can to protect themselves."

If Republicans do end up adopting a survival-driven strategy, it could look similar to what party leaders did in the fall of 1996, when GOP nominee Bob Dole was trailing President Bill Clinton by double digits and Ross Perot was averaging 8 percent support in national polls, according to data compiled by Gallup.

Sensing a Clinton victory and witnessing a decline in support for GOP congressional candidates, Republicans began channeling nearly all of their resources into an aggressive push to preserve the congressional majority they had won in 1994. The National Republican Congressional Committee soon released ads in a variety of House districts that asked voters to consider the damage that could be done if they gave Clinton and "the special interests a blank check in Congress ..."

"We did advertising and a lot of message delivery about not giving Clinton a blank check. I think that would be premature now, but at some point it might be absolutely appropriate to say that," one Republican official, who was heavily involved with the party during the 1996 election, told the Washington Examiner.

The latest average of national polls finds Trump trailing Clinton by 7 percentage points. Separate battleground state polls released Tuesday showed the former secretary of state leading him in Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania and virtually tied with him in Florida. And Democrats (as well as some Republicans) have pounced on Trump, who is struggling to regain momentum and reset his campaign, for what they claim was an "assassination threat" against Clinton.

The Trump campaign has entered a dark period and the candidate does not appear to be helping vulnerable congressional Republicans.

In New Hampshire, where Sen. Kelly Ayotte faces one of the toughest Senate races in the country, her Democratic challenger recently surged to a 10-point lead. In Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state and home to another heated Senate contest, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey has routinely been pressured to rebuke Trump by his opponent, Katie McGinty. A Morning Consult survey in May found that 49 percent of Americans would be somewhat or much less likely to cast their ballot for a congressional candidate who endorsed Trump, while 40 percent said pro-Trump candidates were more likely to earn their support.

Nevertheless, Republicans continue to waver when it comes to deciding whether a steady stream of conservative figures condemning Trump or increased concerns about down-ballot races will lead them to shun the man at the top of their presidential ticket.

"I think they could if they come to the foregone conclusion that Hillary will be president," said veteran GOP strategist John Feehery. "I think they can use the blank check stuff from '96."

"I was part of the leadership when we did that and I think it made a lot of sense," he noted. "[But] the problem with that is that you don't want to be seen as an obstructionist. It would have to be more carefully couched: 'We're going to not stop Hillary dead in her tracks, but we can provide enough balance for her extremism.'"

Some Republicans are already encouraging GOP lawmakers and party leaders to behave as free agents and either distance themselves from, or disavow Trump.

"At long last, Donald Trump has left the Republican Party few options but to act decisively and get this political train wreck off the tracks before something terrible happens," former Republican congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough wrote in his latest op-ed for the Washington Post.

Scarborough went further, claiming "the Republican Party needs to start examining quickly their options for removing the Republican nominee" and replacing Trump with another standard-bearer.

On Tuesday, former GOP Sen. Gordon Humphrey urged Republican National Committee officials to recall Trump's nomination by invoking Rule 9, a guideline on how to choose a new presidential candidate in the event of a death, resignation or other circumstance.

"If this is not the straw that breaks the camel's back, if this outrage is not sufficient to inspire courage in the Republican leadership… then surely the Republican Party has lost its moral conscience," Humphrey told Politico, referring to Trump's "Second Amendment" flub.

Other Republicans have remained patient and believe Trump's sagging poll numbers are nothing out of the ordinary at this point in a general election.

"I don't think you'll ever get to a point where it looks like a total collapse of his campaign," said respected GOP pollster Ed Goeas. "It's going to ebb and flow. At the end of the day, this is going to be a close race."

Charlie Gerow, a Republican party strategist based in Pennsylvania, said it is "plausible" for Trump to "bring Republicans back into the fold if he can sustain two to three on-message weeks without any of the interruptions or spontaneous eruptions that have pockmarked his campaign."

But if Trump fails to do that, expect Republican party leaders, donors and candidates to respond accordingly, Gerow said.

"I don't think it's going to be a sit down and several of them come up with a grand scheme to defect or move aside from the Trump ticket. I just think they're going to do what is best for them."