Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio spent 119 minutes Thursday night savaging Donald Trump as fundamentally unfit to be the Republican nominee. Then, in the final minute of the 11th Republican presidential debate, they changed their tune --- totally.
Asked whether they could and would support Trump as the GOP standard-bearer in the fall election, both Rubio and Cruz (and John Kasich) said yes.
"I'll support Donald if he's the Republican nominee, and let me tell you why," Rubio said. "Because the Democrats have two people left in the race. One of them is a socialist. . .the other one is under FBI investigation."
"Yes, because I gave my word that I would," offered Cruz.
I understand why both men pledged to support Trump. Because they knew that the moderators would eventually ask Trump -- as they did -- whether he would pledge to back the Republican nominee in the event it wasn't him. And neither Rubio nor Cruz wanted to give Trump any wiggle room on that question.
They got what they wanted, sort of. "Yes, I will. Yes. I will," Trump said when pressed on the question by moderator Chris Wallace.
But, but, but. This is Donald Trump we're talking about. Do you think that if he goes into the Republican National Convention with the most delegates and somehow winds up not winning the nomination that he will say to himself, "Well, I can't run as an independent because I said at that debate I wouldn't?" No chance.
Instead of trying to put Trump in a box on the question of a third party bid, what Cruz and/or Rubio should have said is some version of this:
"'I have been a Republican and a conservative all of my adult life. I believe deeply in the principles on which this party was built and on which it still stands. Because of my commitment to those principles, I cannot in good conscience support Donald Trump if he is the Republican Party nominee. I simply do not believe he is either a Republican or a conservative.'"
That could work! It would paint Cruz or Rubio as a principled defender of what the party stands for as opposed to just another sour grapes politician. And, most importantly, it wouldn't fundamentally undermine the entire case that both men spent not only Thursday's debate but much of this campaign making: That Trump is simply too flexible on issues and policies to represent the Republican Party in the fall.
Neither man did that. Missed opportunities, which, in a lot of ways, is the two-word summary of this race for all of the not-Trump candidates.
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