- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2016

ARCADIA, Fla. — Austin Kaiser wants Sen. Marco Rubio to be Republicans’ presidential nominee — so he’s going to vote this week for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, one of Mr. Rubio’s competitors.

It’s part of a divide-and-conquer strategy designed to derail front-runner Donald Trump’s march to the nomination. Mr. Rubio, Mr. Kasich and Sen. Ted Cruz are picking their battles and trying not to overlap each other as they target Mr. Trump ahead of Tuesday, when voters cast ballots in Ohio and Florida, as well as in Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri.

Mr. Rubio’s campaign has explicitly urged its supporters to back Mr. Kasich in Ohio. Mr. Kasich has declined to do the same for Mr. Rubio in Florida, but he’s stayed out of that state anyway, leaving the path clear for Mr. Rubio to maximize votes there. Mr. Cruz has also avoided Florida, instead focusing on the other states.

Analysts say the divide-and-conquer strategy is not likely to succeed because it requires a lot of very informed, strategic-minded voters. But the fact that the campaigns are implicitly condoning the strategy — or, in the case of Mr. Rubio, explicitly extolling it — suggests just how divisive this year’s race has become on the GOP side.

“I think if Donald is the nominee, I think it is a disaster,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said Sunday on ABC. “I mean, it’s a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives. I think it’s a disaster for the country, because if Donald is the nominee, it makes it much, much more likely that Hillary Clinton wins the general.”

Mr. Cruz is hoping to get into a one-on-one battle with Mr. Trump, saying the anti-Trump forces are more than enough to deliver him a victory. But Mr. Rubio and Mr. Kasich, despite generally subpar campaigns, have declined to drop out, saying they expected to get boosts from voters in their home states of Florida and Ohio.

All three share a goal: Deny Mr. Trump the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination on the first ballot at the convention in July. Mr. Cruz says he can still win enough delegates to defeat Mr. Trump outright, while the other two are unlikely to win a majority, and are instead hoping to force the decision past the first ballot at the convention.

Their strategy relies on the upcoming winner-take-all states, such as Ohio and Florida, where the top vote-getter will claim all of the delegates to the convention. Mr. Rubio had hoped to win in Florida and Mr. Kasich in Ohio, denying Mr. Trump the massive delegate haul in each state and making a contested convention more likely.

Their determination to stop Mr. Trump has only grown in the last couple of days as Mr. Trump has faced increasing questions about his rhetoric and the protests it has spawned.

“We are not going to allow the Republican Party to become the party of fear and frustration and anger,” Mr. Rubio said at an evening rally in Orlando.

In Ohio Mr. Kaiser says he knows of 20 people who support either Mr. Rubio or Mr. Cruz but who plan to vote for Mr. Kasich in an effort to deny Mr. Trump a path to victory.

“The momentum is building for Kasich in Ohio, but you don’t see that in any other state. It is building in Ohio because people want to stop Trump, and that is everybody’s goal,” said Mr. Kaiser, who is from Springboro, Ohio. “The polls are showing that Kasich was down by double digits in Ohio until this talk about this strategy started taking off, and all of a sudden he is up five [points] in some polls.”

Mr. Kasich has indeed surged, with the Real Clear Politics average of polls now giving the governor a 2 percentage point lead in the state.

Mr. Rubio, though, has not kept up his end of the tacit agreement and trails Mr. Trump by nearly 20 points in Florida.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, holds a commanding lead in North Carolina — though Mr. Cruz has jumped in polls in Missouri and Illinois, suggesting the front-runner’s recent travails are slowing him.

Trump backers are dismissive of the divide-and-conquer strategy, calling it a last-gasp effort that will only perpetuate divisions within the GOP and will aid Democratic presidential front-runner Mrs. Clinton.

“It’s going to be successful in electing Hillary — their divide and conquer for Hillary — is what that tactic’s going to lead to,” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Trump backer, said Sunday as she campaigned at a rodeo in Arcadia, southeast of Tampa.

“It makes no sense to average, everyday Americans who aren’t part of that kind of inside baseball power struggle play that they’re all part of,” she said. “Their divide and conquer is a stupid strategy.”

There’s no polling to know for sure whether the tactic is working, but analysts said it’s been tried before and didn’t work.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, pointed to 1964, when moderate and liberal Republicans teamed up to try to stop Sen. Barry Goldwater from claiming the GOP’s nomination.

“It was a different era and primaries were many fewer, but Govs. Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, Bill Scranton and other officeholders tried to orchestrate a group of favorite sons, including themselves, to deny Goldwater a convention majority. Obviously it didn’t work,” Mr. Sabato said.

The Rubio campaign, which has been the most vocal proponent of the divide-and-conquer strategy, said it was mostly a recognition of reality.

“I can tell you that in Florida, I’m the only one that can beat Donald Trump, and whether someone supports Ted Cruz or John Kasich, if you vote for them in Florida, you’re in essence voting for Donald Trump,” Mr. Rubio said.

But he said there are limits to how far the coordination can go. He ruled out the possibility of joining forces with Mr. Cruz.

Part of the problem this year is that while strategic voting could help Mr. Rubio and Mr. Kasich stay in the race longer, it hurts Mr. Cruz’s chance to get Mr. Trump in the one-on-one matchup that polls say he could win.

“Florida and Ohio are going to have an outsize role in all of this, in terms of whether Trump has the magic number of delegates or whether he goes in to the convention short of the finish line,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Rubio backer. “If he doesn’t get to the magic number, I think there’s a number of variables out there in terms of how close he actually is, whether the other candidates remain consolidate around an alternative or whether they continue to splinter in terms of endorsing Trump or not endorsing Trump. You’re writing a new playbook at that point.”

Establishment Republicans had hoped that as the field narrowed, anti-Trump forces would consolidate. But Mr. Trump says he’ll get some of the voters who would have backed former candidates — and indeed he’s won several surprising endorsements.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stunned his party by backing Mr. Trump, and on Friday retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who dropped out of the race earlier this month, followed suit.

Seth McLaughlin reported from Columbus, Ohio. David Sherfinski and Anjali Shastry contributed to this article from Washington.

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