If Republicans honor their existing rules of the road this summer, the GOP is already looking at a two-horse race for president.
That’s the argument of Sen. Ted Cruz, who says the party’s own convention protocols essentially mean that only he and Republican front-runner Donald Trump can even be considered for the nomination, with third-place candidate John Kasich and dark horse choices like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan already disqualified.
With the possibility of a contested convention in Cleveland very much a live option, the rule that has attracted attention, known as Rule 40(b), was adopted at the party’s 2012 convention and requires a candidate to win a majority of delegates in at least eight states to be considered for the nomination. The move angered allies of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who felt it was intended to minimize Mr. Paul’s role at the 2012 convention in Tampa and smooth the path for nominee Mitt Romney.
While the question of whether the 2012 rule will apply to the 2016 gathering is a matter of sharp dispute, the fact that the debate is on shows the fierce battle for every precious delegate in the increasingly scrambled and unpredictable Republican primary battle.
Mr. Cruz argues that at this point, it would be a “terrible idea” for “Washington power brokers” to change the rules because they’re unhappy with the crop of candidates the voters have picked.
“Those rules say that in order to be on the ballot, you have to have won eight states. Only two of us will meet that threshold — me and Donald Trump,” Mr. Cruz told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt this week. “Those will be the two names on the ballot.
“And I think if the Washington dealmakers try to change the rules to cook the books and insert their favorite dealmaker, I think there would rightly be a revolt of the voters,” he said. “We would have had elections in 50 states, and we need to honor the will of the voters and respect what they decide.”
Ironically, the rule was originally intended to try to box out anti-establishment candidates like Mr. Trump, said Morton Blackwell, a longtime Republican National Committeeman from Virginia.
Mr. Blackwell had unsuccessfully pushed for the rule to be changed prior to the start of the 2016 primary season. But he now says that “it’s too late to change the rules fairly.”
“I think it would be potentially disastrous for the party to alienate the huge numbers of Republicans who are not establishment people, and that constitutes the vast majority of the people who participated in these primaries and caucuses,” he said. “It could hurt the party badly, split people, because it’s a very strong point that they would have changed the rules in order to affect who gets nominated.”
Mr. Trump is the only candidate who has cleared the threshold so far. Mr. Cruz has won at least eight states, but because of proportionality rules did not win a majority of the delegates in all of them.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose lone win in the GOP primary contest came in his home state, said Thursday that the convention rules for 2016 are not yet set in stone, and that the rules committee would make those determinations.
“When you’re a delegate at a convention and you have a candidate who beats Hillary Clinton in the last Fox poll by 11 points, and we’re going to say that that guy doesn’t get considered?” Mr. Kasich said on Fox News. “I mean, come on. That’s not going to happen.”
Boxing out rivals
If any sort of threshold remains in place, that could also box out potential compromise candidates such as Mr. Romney or Mr. Ryan. Mr. Ryan has repeatedly sworn he would not accept the nomination under such a circumstance, and has said that as chairman of the convention he’ll be a neutral arbiter in the proceedings.
Randy Evans, a national committeeman from Georgia, said Thursday it’s an open question what will happen with the eight-state threshold, and that much of it will depend on which candidates win in the remaining states.
“There are plenty of states left in order to meet the threshold,” Mr. Evans said on CNN. “We’re not going to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. But if we get toward the convention, we’ll have to take a look at it.”
A candidate needs 1,237 delegates to clinch the nomination. The latest delegate count, according to the AP, has Mr. Trump with 736, Mr. Cruz with 463, and Mr. Kasich with 143.
Reflecting a growing interest in the nitty-gritty of the nominating fight, the Republican National Committee launched a website on Thursday designed to answer questions about the delegate process and how the party adopts its rules for the convention.
The 2016 convention rules committee meets about a week before the convention to adopt a package of recommended rules. The committee consists of two delegates from each state and territory, adding up to 112 delegates in total, and a majority of convention delegates ultimately have to adopt the committee’s report.
The Trump campaign, which has found itself at times outmaneuvered in state-level delegate battles this spring, is clearly steeling for a potential convention fight. Mr. Trump announced this week he is opening a Washington, D.C.-based office to coordinate his campaign’s work with the RNC, Congress and his convention and delegate operations.
He also announced that Paul J. Manafort, who worked on conventions for former Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, will serve as his campaign’s convention manager.
“Paul Manafort and the team I am building bring the needed skill sets to ensure that the will of the Republican voters, not the Washington political establishment, determines who will be the nominee for the Republican Party,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump also huddled with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus in a meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., with the delegate selection process reportedly a central focus of their private discussions.
The new website does not directly address whether the eight-state threshold from 2012 will carry over to 2016, but does note prominently that “the rules of the convention are unique to each convention and voted upon by the delegates.”