There is something terribly wrong with the Republican primary system. No, it’s not the candidates. The Republican voters seem very capable of separating the wheat from the chaff. No, it’s not the prominence of Iowa, although that state’s caucuses are a farcical imitation of democracy, we have learned. No, what is inexplicable is that candidates can use the party, gain exposure through its debates, lure GOP donors to give money and then run against the party’s nominee.

Gary Johnson is the first to do this, telling us a libertarian bid is in the offing. He grouses, “The Republican Party hung me out to dry.” But in truth, he was given free air time in debates, allowed to compete with other candidates and has now hung his former party out to dry by using that exposure and any money raised to run against the GOP nominee. He is no different than Charlie Crist in that respect.

Johnson may be relatively innocuous, but two bigger names are trying to leave the door open for third-party run. Jon Huntsman, for example, says, “I’m not running as an independent.” Notice the present tense. This is precisely the same formulation that Crist used. In March 2010 he had this exchange with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday:

CRIST: I’m running as a Republican. I’m very proud to be from the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, others that really have stood up for our party, like Ronald Reagan. This is a great party. It has a great future. We have a great opportunity to win in November. It’s important that we put a candidate up that can win in November.

WALLACE: So are you ruling out that you will file as an Independent by the April 30th deadline?

CRIST: That’s right. That’s right. I’m running as a Republican.

Then there is Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). The Boston Globe reported last week:

Ron Paul, the renegade Republican with libertarian leanings, is once again refusing to rule out an independent or third-party candidacy, if he does not win the GOP presidential nomination.

“I think really the question is, is what do we have to offer?” Paul said during Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa, after he was asked if he would support the eventual GOP nominee.

“And I have something different to offer,” Paul said. “I emphasize civil liberties. I emphasize a pro-American foreign policy, which is a lot different than policeman of the world.”

Paul has made similar comments in the past. On “Meet the Press,” last Sunday, for example, he said he was not thinking about a third-party run, but left the option open.

It’s outrageous, really, that candidates should be given time in debates, allowed to raise money under the GOP banner, acquire endorsements and a pool of volunteers, all on the pretext of running as a Republican but nevertheless not rule out once and for all that they won’t turn around and run against the party that provided them with those benefits.

There is an easy way to solve the problem, of course. Every state party or the Republican National Committee itself, in addition to what other ballot requirements may exist, should demand a written commitment that candidates will not pick up stakes and run as an independent or on another party’s ticket. If need be, state legislatures can pass “sore loser” statutes.

It’s certainly not too late in this nomination process for governors and party chairmen in states to ask candidates to make that commitment on a voluntary basis. It would certainly clarify who is trying to take the party for a ride and who will support the nominee. It’s perfectly acceptable, indeed it is the essence of a political party, that inclusion in its nominating process requires a simple agreement not to abandon the party if things don’t work out to a candidate’s liking. Frankly, it’s high time for the GOP to make sure no more candidates take advantage of the party, its voters and its nomination process.