- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As the Republican National Committee convenes its spring meeting in this resort city, conservative activists fearful of getting stuck with another moderate candidate in 2016 are gathering 2,300 miles away to plot strategies to engineer the presidential nomination to their liking.

Representatives of some 40 conservative groups plan to meet Wednesday at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia, where they will air their fears of having the nomination process hijacked by establishment Republicans and wrestle over different strategies to turn the primaries and caucuses to their advantage.

Their goal is to avoid ending up with another moderate, establishment candidate like they landed in 2008 with John McCain and in 2012 with Mitt Romney. Their hope is to find a way to pick a nominee who, if elected, would actually stay the course the way they think Ronald Reagan did 35 years ago.

One of the ideas they are toying with has been tried before: a secret oath by conservatives to throw their support behind a single candidate selected by a vote of the members at Wednesday’s meeting.

Some high-profile conservatives are already frowning on that idea, noting it was tried and failed four years ago when a similar meeting coalesced around Rick Santorum, who failed to win the nomination.

“I refused to take the pledge but am attending anyhow,” said longtime social conservative Phyllis Schlafly. “I will not commit in advance of my knowing who the candidate [is] or whether he is good on the issues I care most about.”

SEE ALSO: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Donald Trump top ‘can’t support’ lists in early primary states

Another idea offered by former Missouri GOP chairman Ed Martin is fresh to the quadrennial confab of conservatives. He wants to launch a concerted effort to persuade every GOP candidate to stay into the race until the end.

The goal would get each of the dozen or more expected GOP candidates to hold onto their delegates and to finish their campaigns at the Republican nominating convention in Cleveland in summer 2016, increasing the chance for a brokered deal for the nomination.

Mrs. Schlafly, who is attending the meeting, and longtime anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who will be skipping, seem warmer to the second idea.

“This is the more intriguing idea, because it hasn’t already been tried and shown to fail,” Mr. Norquist said. “The first approach of attempting to coalesce behind one conservative candidate never worked. I was a part of that attempt.

“And if you are a single-issue interest group, like Americans for Tax Reform or the National Right to Life Committee or the National Right to Work Committee, you could never agree in advance to endorsing someone whose stand on your issue may be wrong,” he added.

The mere existence of the gathering is a sign that conservative activists see the 2016 election as a watershed opportunity to change the dynamic of the last decade, in which several conservative candidates split the vote, opening the door for moderates backed by big business and the establishment to win the nomination.

For many conservatives planning to attend the gathering, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is the dreaded incarnation of the inevitable establishment candidate next year who could outfundraise the entire field of competitors.

Mr. Bush, the son of the 41st president and brother of the 43rd, created a fairly conservative record of accomplishment as Florida governor but has since created distrust among conservatives due to positions he has taken since leaving office.

A few years ago, for example, he sided publicly with Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress who wanted to cut a deal to offer more in spending cuts in exchange for some tax hikes. Such promised exchanges have worked to the Democrats’ favor historically, resulting in spending boosts or tax hikes, but not the promised spending cuts. One such agreement is widely believed to have cost President George H.W. Bush a second term in the White House. Jeb Bush’s positions on immigration and Common Core education reforms have further alienated some in the GOP base.

In the end, there will be slightly more than 2,470 delegates available in the primaries and caucuses in 2016, and the eventual nominee must garner half of them plus one to win.

Whether delegates are legally bound to a particular candidate is not a problem. Convention delegates themselves can change the rules by which they will select the nominee. They may allow delegates to be unbound and therefore able, on the first ballot, to vote their conscience instead of voting for the highest vote getter(s) in their state party’s primary elections and caucuses.

By staying the course, a bevy of conservative hopefuls can deny Mr. Bush the requisite delegates to win outright and allow the full convention to pick the nominee, some activists hope.

In fact, the candidates and their campaign strategists would do the deciding — horse trading promises of running mates or Cabinet positions to put together a winning coalition of brokered delegates.

“The idea of staying in all the way to the convention gives dignity to the also-rans,” Mr. Norquist said.

Some think attempting to manipulate the nomination process in what some see as a better direction has inherent contradictions for conservatives who normally value a free market.

“The challenge is for people who profess to believe in free markets to find a way to skew the system and yet stay true to their principles,” said conservative activist and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

“I am surprised all these followers of Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith fail to see that campaigns in the political marketplace are conducted according to enlightened self-interests,” Mr. Blackwell said. “Some things you just can’t manage.”

The response typically given to that argument is that the system is already artificially rigged to play to the strength of the candidate who can outraise everyone else financially.

Even the approach Mr. Norquist finds more intriguing has its problems, such as Mr. Bush promising a rival the vice presidency in exchange for that rival’s delegates — who may or may not be deliverable in the first place.

“The vice presidential promise reminds people you can’t play with other people’s cards by asking candidates to hold on to [their] delegates till the end,” Mr. Norquist said. “There’s nothing to stop this or that candidate from getting other commitments from another candidate to transfer votes to be at the top of the ticket or the running mate.”

Mr. Martin, the former Missouri GOP chairman and current president of the Eagle Forum, penned an op-ed Wednesday in The Washington Times arguing for what he calls the “Go the Distance Plan” that would encourage every candidate to stay in the race until Cleveland.

But he acknowledges that the horse trading that typically takes place before a convention could sink such a plan.

“A David Limbaugh, for example, could decide to say, ‘I like Cruz to win, I want Cruz to surge,’” Mr. Martin said. “And then, say, Huckabee decides to get behind Cruz and recommend to the delegates Huckabee has accumulated that they go to Cruz at the convention. The ‘Go the Distance’ plan could unravel at that point.”

While conservatives grasp for their own solutions, the RNC meeting in Scottsdale will witness an effort by the Standing Committee on Debates to cap the number of GOP presidential candidates invited to the televised debates.

For the first time the RNC will sanction and control the debates, but the effort is not without controversy.

One concern is that debate committee member Ron Kaufman, an RNC member from Massachusetts, is working for Mr. Bush, and Mississippi RNC member Henry Barbour, another debate committee member, is working for retired Texas Gov. Rick Perry. That raises the question of whether, in choosing the criteria for excluding some of the field, those two committee members may help Mr. Perry and Mr. Bush shove aside nettlesome rivals.

The other problem is that no matter how the TV debate participants are whittled down to a manageable number, it will be the national party, and not some external force like the TV networks, that does the excluding. Some candidates and staffs grumble that is not a fair solution for a party that reveres free markets.

The 16 men and one woman who are either declared or prospective candidates for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 include: Mr. Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, John Bolton, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Gov. Perry, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump and Scott Walker.

The likeliest method that the debate committee will recommend on Wednesday is setting for each candidate a minimum average ranking in national polls of registered Republicans and a minimum dollar total raised by the time of the first scheduled debate in July.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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