Opinion writer
Speaking as voters in 13 states cast their ballots on Super Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said potential Republican presidential nominees must reject any group "built on bigotry." (Reuters)

Even as Republican voters in states across the country went to the polls to deliver what may be a sweeping Super Tuesday victory for Donald Trump, putting him on a clear path to the GOP nomination, House Speaker Paul Ryan stood today before reporters in the Capitol and issued a stark warning to Trump and to members of his own party:

“When I see something that runs counter to who we are as a party and as a country, I will speak up, so today I want to be very clear about something,” Ryan said.

“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln.”

He added: “This is fundamental. And if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this. I hope this is the last time I need to speak out on this race.”

Ryan appeared heartfelt in his denunciations, which were plainly aimed at Trump’s failure to disavow David Duke over the weekend, as well as at Trump’s casual use of his mighty twitter feed to promote the rantings of racists. And Ryan deserves credit for doing this, just as he deserved credit for denouncing in unequivocal terms Trump’s call for a temporary ban on non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States. There’s little doubt that Ryan personally finds Trumpism to be horrifying.

Of course, Ryan also declared at today’s presser that at the end of the day, his “plan is to support the nominee,” no matter (presumably) who it ends up being. Democrats were quick to point out that this weakens the force of Ryan’s condemnation of Trump.

However, it’s possible that Ryan’s remarks, and the tensions evident within them, actually hint at the foreshadowing of something else: the argument that Republican leaders may find themselves obliged to use if they are going to take the nomination from Trump at the Republican convention.

Right now, if the voting today goes as expected, there will likely end up being only two possible endgames in the GOP nomination fight. Either Trump ends up winning a majority of the delegates outright, in which case he wins the nomination; or Trump doesn’t win a majority of the delegates, and one of his rivals (most likely Marco Rubio) forces a contested convention. In the latter scenario, delegates would ultimately be free to vote at the convention for whichever candidate they choose, setting up a messy back-room battle to reach a majority of delegates that could end in a candidate with fewer votes (say, Rubio), rather than the candidate with the most votes (say, Trump), winning the nomination. The Rubio campaign is already preparing for this possibility.

Ted Cruz has already mocked the brokered-convention idea as a fantasy harbored by the GOP establishment, claiming:

“A contested convention is the great hope of the Republican establishment, it is how they are drowning away their sorrows….All these crazy voters go one way, we’ll step in with all of our money and anoint our white knight to ride in and save the day. That’s not going to happen.”

Cruz may have his own less-than-noble reasons for opposing a contested convention; he is not likely to be the establishment’s pick as the alternative to Trump, to put it mildly. But Cruz is probably right that the argument for such an outcome, if Trump got more votes, would be a tough one to make.

In Paul Ryan’s comments today you can see the potential seeds of such an argument. Ryan’s point is that a candidate who harbors the views ascribed to Trump cannot be the party’s nominee — this is “fundamental,” he says. If so, it might be a good enough reason for the party to try to deliver the nomination to someone else, even if that person didn’t get quite as many votes as Trump did. And perhaps it will be possible to make a non-crazy, plausible-sounding case, if it comes down to it, that this really is a good enough reason. After all, there’s no telling what craziness will pour fourth from Trump in the next few months, and the prospect of a Trump presidency might begin to look substantially more dangerous and alarming than it does now, if that’s even possible.

In a way this may also be a message to other leading Republicans. The New York Times reports today that GOP lawmakers are “beginning to split between those who could accept, even embrace, the billionaire as their nominee and those who have vowed, ‘Never Trump.'” Ryan’s flat declaration that someone with Trump’s views simply cannot be the GOP nominee is perhaps meant to warn off Republican lawmakers who might feel inclined to play ball with the Donald, particularly if his delegate advantage gains massive momentum. As the Times puts it, GOP lawmakers

are privately pondering which camp to join. There is no playbook for the choice they face. In the last half-century, no prospective Republican front-runner at this stage has been the object of such intraparty animus.

Of course, Trump may win the nomination outright. If so, Ryan’s argument right now now will loom as problematic for those who (like Ryan himself) are pledging to support the nominee, whoever it is.