When Donald Trump collected a few unbound delegates last week, surpassing the 1,237 needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, expectations that the national convention could be the most dramatic in modern times evaporated.
“Now, it will be the most entertaining,” said Randy Evans, a party-wise man from Georgia, with a nod to the reality TV star’s promise to “put some show biz” into the July convention in Cleveland.
But there remains an important, unscripted drama yet to unfold in the tempestuous relationship between Trump and his chief rival, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Although Trump will arrive in Cleveland as the victor and Cruz the vanquished, the politics of the moment suggest that Trump needs Cruz — to reassure nervous conservatives — more than Cruz needs Trump, whose defeat in November would fulfill Cruz’s frequent prediction and best serve the 45-year-old Texan’s future presidential ambitions.
“If he does not endorse and Trump loses, Cruz gets to step out on Nov. 9 and say, ‘See what I said,’ ” said Evans, a member of the Republican National Committee’s Rules Committee who, as chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, stayed neutral in the race.
“Cruz is a brilliant strategist, a long-term player. He’s got cards to play, and I fully expect him to play a few of those cards,” Evans said. “I think Cruz’s theme will be to say, `You’re the nominee, but I’m the party. You’re the name on the ballot, but I’m the one who represents, who epitomizes what it means to be a Republican.’”
Cruz ended his campaign May 3 after a bitter defeat in Indiana, dropping out shortly after lashing out at the man who had spent months calling him “Lyin’ Ted.”
“This man is a pathological liar,” Cruz said of Trump. “He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth.”
Cruz also called Trump “utterly amoral,” adding that “morality does not exist for him.”
“I don’t see how you can take those words back, particularly if part of your appeal is that you’re not a traditional politician, that ‘I tell it like it is,’ ” University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. “I can’t see how that would work.”
For many admirers of Cruz, the very thought of endorsing Trump remains repugnant.
“Cruz should maintain his sterling conservative brand and stay far away from the Trump train and its inevitable wreckage,” said CNN contributor Amanda Carpenter, Cruz’s former communications director in the Senate. “Even if Trump wins the White House, he’ll have done it in a low-down, dirty way that no one with any integrity should be proud to endorse.”
There also are countervailing pressures on Cruz and his supporters to get behind Trump.
If Trump wins, “people are not going to want to be on the outs with the president of their party, because you will really be on the outs,” said former Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri, a convention consultant for the Republican National Committee and a Texas delegate who will serve on the convention’s Rules Committee.
And if Cruz wants to address the convention, Munisteri said, “folks don’t generally get to speak if they don’t endorse.”
Trump is not one to share the spotlight, and past conventions have proved the perils for candidates who do.
Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy stole the show, and undermined President Jimmy Carter’s re-election, with his compelling “the dream shall never die” speech at the 1980 Democratic Convention.
“It ruined our national convention, and although Kennedy later came out for us and I appreciate that, the damage done was so bad that you couldn’t make up for it,” then-Vice President Walter Mondale said in an oral history.
Pat Buchanan’s “cultural war” speech at the 1992 Republican Convention was similarly detrimental to President George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign.
“It was a total disaster that really set us back for the rest of the campaign,” said Dave Carney, Bush’s political director in 1992, who was chief strategist for Trusted Leadership, a Cruz super PAC, in the late stages of the campaign.
Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican political consultant based in Austin, can’t imagine Cruz endorsing Trump simply out of party loyalty or as a podium pass.
“I’d be shocked if he does speak. I’d be shocked if Trump put him on the stage. I’d be shocked if he wanted to be on the stage,” Steinhauser said.
“For him and for his supporters, it’s about the movement, it’s about the ideas,” Steinhauser said. “Otherwise, what good is the party without the ideas?”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, is organizing a June 21 meeting in New York at which Trump will meet with 400 to 500 social conservatives still making up their minds about him.
“The question is not so much what does Sen. Cruz do about Donald Trump as what does Donald Trump do about Sen. Cruz,” Perkins said.
“Trump would help himself out tremendously by reaching out to Sen. Cruz,” said Perkins, a Cruz delegate from Louisiana who will serve on the Platform Committee. “If Cruz just endorsed Trump, that would not carry the weight it would have if Trump first reached out to Ted and Ted’s supporters, not as a conqueror but as a colleague. That would make a huge difference in the eyes of many Cruz supporters.”
Cruz will come to Cleveland with unusually strong leverage for a losing candidate.
His campaign accumulated 559 bound delegates, but that vastly underestimates his real strength at the convention. His campaign was exceptionally adept in the separate, parallel process of electing the actual delegates who will attend the convention — many of whom must vote for Trump for president but can side with Cruz on all other matters — and in placing loyalists on the Rules, Platform and Credentials committees.
Case in point: Last week, Trump won 76 percent of the vote — and all 41 delegates — in the Washington state primary, but at the state convention days earlier, Cruz partisans managed to choose 40 of the 41 people who will actually fill those slots.
The Trump campaign did not reply to questions about Cruz and the convention. The suspended Cruz campaign offered little more.
“Cruz has said he plans to attend the convention and is grateful for the many conservative delegates who supported him during his race,” said Catherine Frazier, the campaign’s former spokeswoman. “His delegates will play an important role in influencing the GOP platform and protecting the conservative principles that have defined and should remain the foundation of our party.”
What is the Cruz agenda for Cleveland?
“Nothing more than trying to encourage … Cruz-supporting delegates to attend the Cleveland convention and support a conservative platform and grassroots rules,” Ken Cuccinelli, head of the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Cruz campaign’s chief delegate wrangler, said in an email.
David Barton, chairman of the pro-Cruz Keep the Promise super PAC, who will be one of two Texans on the Platform Committee, elaborated.
“There might indeed be forthcoming endorsements of Mr. Trump from some Ted Cruz supporters, but many are in a wait-and-see mode to see what type of staff and advisers and policy positions Mr. Trump chooses,” Barton said. “Certainly releasing his list of potential Supreme Court nominees was a very good first step, for the list reflected a strong body of tested jurists who respect and uphold the Constitution.”
If Trump can show that he is embracing conservative positions in other areas, “then I think the likelihood of future endorsements definitely grows,” Barton said.
The Rules Committee, which will draw up the rules that the convention must adopt as a first order of business, offers even more intriguing possibilities.
Those rules will determine whether Cruz can have his name entered into nomination, which might also offer Cruz a chance to speak to the convention by placing his own name in nomination.
In theory, the Rules Committee — with the OK of the full convention — could unbind all the delegates, unleashing all kinds of havoc.
“It’s not over till the fat lady sings,” said Ray Myers, chairman of the Kaufman County Tea Party, who will be a Cruz delegate in Cleveland.
Myers is not alone in believing there remains a whisper of a hope that Cruz could still emerge with the nomination if Trump finally goes too far.
“With Donald Trump’s personality, when he gets behind a microphone, anything can happen,” Myers said.
In just the past week, Trump suggested former President Bill Clinton was a rapist and, at a rally in Albuquerque, N.M., attacked the record of Gov. Susana Martinez, the first Hispanic female governor and head of the Republican Governors Association, who has not endorsed him.
But Trump is competitive with Democrat Hillary Clinton in the polls, and Carl Tepper, the Lubbock County Republican chairman and an at-large Trump delegate, said winning is the great elixir of politics.
“He’s going to win,” Tepper said. “He’s not going to hold back. He’s using the artillery others are too genteel to launch her way. He’s the right guy at the right time to take on Hillary.”
“If Ted’s not the nominee, if it’s Trump, we’ll support Trump,” Myers said. But, he said, “at some point Trump and Cruz are going to have to have a come to Jesus moment.
“This is not a game to Ted Cruz,” Myers said. “It’s not just about winning but about trying to save this country.”