As the ‘nuclear option’ of a contested convention looms large for the Republicans, the Democrats face their own woes after a bruising candidate battle left the party wounded, writes Bette Browne

THE explosive prospect of a contested convention is drawing closer for Republicans in the US presidential race as the party manoeuvres to block frontrunner Donald Trump from winning the nomination.

Such a convention has been dubbed the “nuclear option” for a good reason. It’s tough to pull off and extremely divisive, so much so that it’s almost 70 years since the party saw its last one.

Trump sees it as tantamount to a declaration of war and has forecast rioting by his supporters if it happens.

He has notched up huge victories in nominating primaries around the country and he is not about to allow the prize to be snatched from him by the party hierarchy who see him as a demagogue and political neophyte who will destroy the party and sink its chances of winning the White House against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

They would prefer a more orthodox standard bearer in the November election and have had their eye on drafting in House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate in their 2012 unsuccessful race against President Barack Obama.

Ryan has been insisting for some time that he has no interest in such a scenario and repeated this assertion last week.

Then again he also denied he was interested in becoming House Speaker last October, but subsequently took the post when his party urged him to do so.

Regardless of where Ryan stands on the issue, however, the party establishment has been exploring the likelihood of a contested convention for some time as a last-ditch effort to block Trump from securing the nomination in July if he arrives at the convention without having secured the required 1,237 delegates.

Foreseeing this, Trump has upped the ante and predicted rioting by his supporters if he arrives with the most delegates and doesn’t win the nomination.

While at present he certainly has the most delegates — 743 to 545 for Ted Cruz and 143 for John Kasich — he has not yet reached the required magic number and Cruz is edging closer to him.

A contested convention, also known as a brokered convention, becomes almost inevitable when no candidate has amassed the 1,237 delegate votes needed to win the nomination in advance of the convention.

A candidate still might gather enough delegates by the time balloting begins, in which case the nomination is settled on the first ballot.

But if there is no winner after the first vote, new rounds of voting begin and the rules allow delegates to switch teams and vote for whomever they wish.

The chances of this happening are increasing rather than receding and the billionaire businessman’s successes have failed to dampen down the “dump Trump” movement within the party.

If anything, it has become more emboldened and, having failed to halt Trump’s march with million-dollar ad campaigns against him, these establishment Republicans now see the convention as their last stand.

Certainly, their battle will be as tough as it will be ugly. For a start, it’s a battle they will have to fight on a number of fronts.

Firstly, they must somehow find ways to overcome Trump’s delegate strength. Then they must decide whether to rally behind Cruz or sideline the Texas senator because they tend to loathe him almost as much as Trump, though for now they are content to use him to slow down Trump in the primaries.

But on convention day if they decide to somehow sideline Cruz they then have to plot the third, even tougher, battle — drafting in an establishment candidate of the calibre of House Speaker Ryan.

All bets would be off. The haggling and deal making would intensify and the convention would become a pitched battle for votes.

But, amid the turmoil, Trump is unlikely to stand by meekly, watching such a scenario unfolding before him.

He would undoubtedly put up a fierce fight and rally his supporters inside and outside the convention. And if he fails to get the nomination in the first round of voting, he would very likely fulfill his threat of running as an independent, taking millions of voters with him. It would be the death-knell for the party and doom its White House chances.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that it’s almost 70 years since the last contested convention happened for Republicans and over 60 years since the Democrats faced one.

The last truly brokered convention for Republicans was in 1948 when they nominated Thomas Dewey, and in 1952 for the Democrats when they picked Adlai Stevenson.

However, both “brokered candidates” went on to lose their respective elections — Harry Truman defeated Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower defeated Stevenson.

Indeed, one has to go back over 80 years to find the last winning US presidential nominee produced by a brokered convention, namely Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932.

Thus, messy conventions tend not to bode well for either party. The last time a Republican convention opened without a nominee decided in the primaries was in 1976. Gerald Ford had a small lead in the popular vote and delegate count over California governor Ronald Reagan.

Haggling ensued, but on the first ballot enough delegates switched to Ford’s camp to secure him the nomination. He subsequently lost in the general election to Jimmy Carter.

The last time a leading Democratic candidate came to the party’s convention without a majority of delegates was in 1984, when Walter Mondale was a few dozen short.

Despite a last-ditch effort to persuade some delegates to deprive Mondale of a first-ballot victory, he went on to win the nomination but subsequently lost the election to Ronald Reagan.

Mindful of this history of contested or chaotic convention, leaders of both parties have sought in more recent years to avoid conflict and use conventions to present a united front to the nation and rally it behind their chosen candidate.

Thus, Republicans may yet decide the “nuclear option” would be a step too far for the party. Instead, they may choose to ignore their condemnations of Trump’s demagogic rhetoric and row in behind him rather than detonate the party.

Indeed, it’s quite conceivable that enough Republicans will come together to work on a makeover of the candidate — and it won’t be about his hair, either.

He may be harsh and demagogic but some Republicans believe he is more malleable than Cruz. He may have few discernible policies, apart from exploiting his supporters’ rage and hurling invective at vulnerable minorities, but once the Republican machine cranks up it could succeed in taming him sufficiently — or at least training him not bite as much.

Already Republicans are beginning to come on board the Trump bandwagon, following the high-profile example of New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and a survey by the Washington Post found 31 of 54 senators were ready to support the Republican nominee if it’s Trump.

But some Republicans who cannot stomach Trump call his backers “Vichy Republicans”, a reference to elements of the French government seen as collaborators with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The leading conservative George Will said these “Vichy Republicans” are “collaborators with the takeover of their party.”

Other Republicans have vowed to sit out the election if Trump gets the nomination, while still others say they will back a third-party candidate, fearing major losses in the Senate and House of Representatives in the general election with Trump or at the top of the ticket.

So even if the convention doesn’t go as far as the nuclear option and decides to stick with Trump, the party would still be riven by chaos and would remain bitterly divided, possibly for decades. Uniting behind Trump or dumping him could thus spell disaster in almost equal measure for the party.

Meanwhile, the Democratic party’s worries are not over yet either. Hillary Clinton may have all but secured the magic number of delegates to defeat her rival Senator Bernie Sanders for the nomination but she now faces the task of uniting her party for the general election campaign and healing the wounds opened in the battle with Sanders.

While the challenges facing the party at its convention, also in July, fade by comparison to those facing Republicans, they are still formidable. Their convention won’t be contested but it will pose some headaches for the party.

Sanders has fought a strong and spirited battle against Clinton and deprived her of a number of primary victories and can still notch up more delegates in the remaining contests until June.

But, at this point, it is almost impossible for him to catch up on her because most of the remaining state contests are based on proportional representation. So unless he has huge victories his delegate number will continue to fall short.

Of the 2,383 delegate votes needed for the Democratic nomination, she has 1,758 (including 469 super delegates) to Sanders’ 1,069 (including 31 super delegates) — super delegates are mainly party leaders and elected party officials and are free to support any candidate regardless of the popular vote.

So while Democrats may not be heading into a nightmare scenario at their convention, Republicans will be likely facing into a bruising political civil war.

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