Although expensive and logistically difficult, a third candidate run may hold more appeal than a contested convention. For one thing, conservative insiders and other anti-Trump forces are not sure Cruz, the only plausible alternative to Trump at a convention, would do much better than Trump in a general election matchup against Hillary Clinton. Moreover, the same Cruz attributes that prompted the majority of Republicans previously to align with other candidates — temperament, rigidity, etc. — still weigh on their minds. Oh, they’ll take him in a flash over Trump, but what if they could do better than Cruz?
That brings us to the identity of a third candidate. Coburn and Perry share key requirements for a third candidate — high name ID, political experience, solidly conservative and a reputation as grownup with a presidential temperament.
There are other factors that would go into finding a potential third candidate. If the candidate is going to be competitive, he or she would have to be in a position to win the electoral college, or at least to keep Clinton from winning it. A big-delegate home state (like Perry’s Texas) would be a plus, but even more so would be the ability to pick off states Clinton needs to reach 270 votes (e.g., Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado). Unfortunately, some stellar candidates who would fit that description (Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio or Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania) are battling to hold critical Senate seats.
Other names come to mind — former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, current Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and former Arizona senator Jon Kyl — but without the certainty of knowing there would be such need for a third candidate run (i.e., Trump gets the nomination) or mechanism for selecting a third candidate, it will be tricky to induce a single, viable contender to run. And yes, there is Mitt Romney, who has 100 percent name ID, status as the unofficial wise man of the party and the same liabilities that kept him from the White House in 2008 and 2012.
If you are more excited by one of the candidates who never ran than by the two current Trump competitors, you may not be alone. A long, contentious race takes its toll on the contenders and neither Cruz nor Ohio Gov. John Kasich has established broad-based support (if one of them had, the GOP would not be in the Trump predicament). One can marvel that after fielding 17 candidates, the GOP may finally decide “none of the above” is its best option.
In sum, in lieu of Trump, the party’s most likely options are Cruz (warts and all) or someone who has not been in the state-by-state battle and who would have to start the race cold, with no campaign organization. There is no easy solution here for Republicans desperate to find a Trump alternative, nor is there any assurance any candidate at this point could beat Clinton. A more realistic goal may be to find a candidate who does not destroy the intellectual and moral fiber of the GOP and can run well enough to avoid major down-ticket losses.
This speaks to the need for Cruz to win more primaries, reach out to former foes and set out an electoral plan that amounts to more than the promise to find and turn out an unproven treasure trove of conservative voters (who, if they exist, are Trump supporters).
Cruz might consider buying a block of time for a major address to Republicans so as to make his pitch for unity, extend an open hand to former foes, restate his basic message and make the political and moral case against Trumpism. In doing so, he might renew hope that Republicans can prevent Trump from seizing the party and convince skeptics he is, all things considered and at this late date, the best Trump alternative for fearful Republicans. If he does that, chatter about a third candidate may die down and Republicans may stop peering over the fence for greener grass.