The media were prepared for a Donald Trump v. Hillary Clinton battle (they were deprived of Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani in 2008) in which the Republican presidential nominee would have all the loathsome attributes in their Republican stereotype (mean, ignorant, bigoted, dangerous, etc.). Given the only opponent she assuredly could clobber, Clinton would march to victory. Much to the mainstream media's chagrin, the effort to find a conservative third candidate remains very much alive, and has, as Sam Stein accurately reports, taken on "added urgency."
Staffing, donors, lawyers, ballot-access workaround and willing volunteers await a candidate. With several groups out recruiting and several candidates showing interest, the organizers seem more optimistic than a week or so ago that they will get their alternative to Trump and Clinton.
Putting aside the specific candidate for a moment, what sort of campaign would a major third contender run? In talking to multiple Republicans involved in the exercise, several constants emerge:
First, the person must be of impeccable character. This is more than just talk. A main argument against both major-party candidates will be that they are lacking in honesty, respect for others (especially critics) and any trace of humility and consistency. They have in mind someone who is personally ethical but would also run an optimistic, positive campaign that does not tell the voters that "the other candidate is worse than I am." The recruiters are not looking for an attack dog, but rather someone who is tough enough to absorb the attacks and rise above it. They believe that disillusioned Democrats who have never warmed to Clinton, independents disgusted with the choices and evangelicals whose concerns Trump has entirely disregarded (and whose search for a virtuous president is mocked by Trumpkins) would be inspired by someone whose faith is sincere and whose behavior is consistent with rhetoric.
Second, the candidate is not going to be able to be an emissary of the far right. The undertaking is intended to draw support from a bigger cross-section of voters than, say, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, did in the Republican primary. That does not mean the person should be a split-the-baby kind of pol. Rather, the idea is to define a set of center-right issues with wide appeal. One reason Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, caught conservatives attention so quickly was that he articulated just such a list (e.g. honest budgeting and entitlements, national security, education). With both major candidates telling the country that entitlement needs no reform - and even should be expanded - someone needs to speak candidly to voters. The third candidate would be clear that eradicating the Islamic State is inconsistent with promises to retrench and retreat from the world.
(By the way, such a candidate would shoot down the notion that the only type of Republicans are unprincipled populists or rigid purists.)
It will take someone of strong convictions to resist the pleas to go to the far right, stray into no-win issues or adopt every item on the GOP checklist.
Third, the candidate must present himself as someone who is neither a career politician nor a crony of politicians who maneuvered the system to his advantage. Right now there is one millionaire and one billionaire in the race, both from New York, each of whom got a huge leg up from a successful relative (Clinton's husband, Trump's father). A plain-spoken candidate from the heartland might be nice, someone self-made perhaps. How novel that would be in this race now dominated by two creatures of entitlement and privilege.
Sadly, candidates of the type we've described used to be commonplace, on both sides of the aisle. Democrats made it acceptable for a celebrity with a cult-like following to run for president. The right-wing echo chamber made the default tone and opposition to immigrants the defining issue. We have, as a result, the worst choice of presidential candidates in decades - unless we find a third candidate who rejects the lowly characters who have navigated through the major parties' primaries. In a few weeks, we should find out whether we can do better.