If, as expected today, Rubio loses Florida and drops out, Trump’s only other competitor may be Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who as of now has yet to win a state and has only 63 delegates. He would have to win 1,174 of the remaining 1,395 delegates to get to 1,237, a virtual impossibility. He nevertheless could remain in the race if he wins Ohio tonight and continue to win delegates, especially in the Midwest, to help force a convention fight.
If both Cruz and Kasich continue in the race, Cruz might consider a few options in leaving Kasich in the dust and mounting a successful effort to knock off Trump.
First, he might try to strike a deal with Kasich, offering him the VP spot. It would not be a bad combination — a firebrand freshman senator and an experienced governor who has also served in Washington, D.C. That said, Kasich might be more trouble than he’s worth given his ideological differences with Cruz (especially on immigration), lack of verbal discipline (only VP Joe Biden may be worse) and declared absence of interest in the VP spot (for whatever that is worth).
Assuming that does not occur, Cruz’s job will be to unify the entire GOP against Trump. That means sweeping many moderates and “somewhat conservative” voters, who have long found Cruz too dogmatic and who regard him as too inexperienced, while keeping his base (including many evangelicals).
He will be required to do what he has never done or shown interest in doing, namely be an inclusive leader who does not take up arms against fellow Republicans (only against Trump who arguably is not much of a Republican). He will have to embrace former Rubio voters, many of whom will be gravely disappointed if not despondent about the collapse of the most inspirational and optimistic Republican since Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. All those Republicans he vilified for favoring “amnesty” (meaning anything other than deportation and self-deportation)? He will need their support.
Cruz — his fiercest critics may not have noticed — has already begun this process, ever so gradually. In the last two debates he almost entirely gave up criticizing anyone but Trump, and sounded more policy-driven than purely ideological. In the last debate, for example, he spoke about his tax, education and entitlement plans in terms of how they affect ordinary Americans. On foreign policy he has stopped painting fellow Republicans as wide-eyed adventurers or clones of Hillary Clinton. That tripartite approach — going after Trump full bore (but with humor and mockery), avoiding antagonizing other Republicans and laying out a policy vision — will need to intensify.
On a personal level, Cruz is going to have to be magnanimous and tactful, two traits not normally associated with him. To some extent that means a complete reversal in how he approaches other Republicans. Instead of labeling and dividing, he will need to find areas of agreement and common purpose among Republicans — the strongest of which is defeating Trumpism. And he will have to dispel the widely held perception that his attitude toward legislation is “my way or the highway.”
In the vein of “It took Nixon to go to China” it may take the most vivid symbol of anti-government animus and grassroots frustration to beat back Trump’s destructive and hate-filled rhetoric and expose his lack of readiness to govern within the strictures of the Constitution and political reality. (Again, Cruz began down that road in the last debate, with lines like: “[I]t’s easy to talk about the problem, but you have to understand the solutions” and “Listen, we’ve got lots of challenges in the world. But the answer can’t just be wave a magic wand and say problem go away.”) Cruz will need to expose Trump’s ignorance about the way government and the world work.
It’s not clear how comfortable Cruz will feel in his new role. He is not accustomed to calling on the better angels of our nature or decrying simplistic answers. His success in defeating Trump however may depend on his quick and convincing transformation from rabble rouser to leader of his party.