At long last, we are closing in on a small enough debate stage — tonight’s Republican debate in Detroit (showing at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox News) will have only the four remaining candidates — to get some real in-depth fireworks without the somnolent, meditative presence of Ben Carson. But the wild card is still John Kasich. We know Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz will come loaded for bear to fight Donald Trump again, as they did so vividly in the last debate. But every time Wolf Blitzer threw things over to Kasich, he stopped the attacks on Trump dead in their tracks. Even as late as this afternoon, he was complaining about other candidates hitting Trump with more than platitudes.
Given that Kasich is skipping most of the states and openly running just to deal Ohio’s delegates at a brokered convention, it raises the rather serious question of whether he is still holding out hope of cutting a deal with Trump, or perhaps already has. You’ll recall that Chris Christie bypassed multiple opportunities to go after Trump, only to endorse him later on. And that, in turn has to be a serious concern for Rubio and Cruz if they are considering cutting a “strategic voting” deal with Kasich: that an agreement to ask their supporters to vote for Kasich would end up with him taking Ohio’s delegates and then trading them to Trump.
Cruz and Rubio plainly both still believe that they have a shot at the nomination and can be the last non-Trump candidate standing, rallying everyone who wants to save the party. Each has won enough votes and raised enough money to see this as a credible prospect. Kasich cannot possibly believe such a thing is in the cards for him after finishing behind Carson nine times and in single digits in twelve out of 15 states (he’s polling dead last in Michigan as well). But nobody seems to have even a vaguely plausible idea of what is motivating him to soldier on, or to whom he might listen to reconsider. You would think that if he can be bought off, even with the offer of a vice-presidential nomination, Rubio and/or Cruz would have contacted him to discuss that by now. Which raises the very legitimate question of whether his ulterior motive is that he considers a Trump nomination to be, at a minimum, not much worse than a Cruz or Rubio nomination, and perhaps even something with which he is willing to do business to make happen.
If Kasich again refuses to take part in hitting Trump tonight — and especially if he criticizes the other candidates for doing so — it is entirely fair to question what his real motivations are.