As convention nears, Ted Cruz continues to hold out support for Donald Trump || San Antonio Express News

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As convention nears, Ted Cruz continues to hold out support for Donald Trump

WASHINGTON — As Republicans start to coalesce around Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a high-stakes game is playing out over what role defeated rival Ted Cruz could play at the party’s national convention in July.

 Almost three weeks since the Indiana primary, which knocked Cruz out of the race, the U.S. senator from Texas continues to withhold his support for the outspoken real estate mogul, whom he attacked as “utterly immoral” and a “pathological liar.”

At stake for Cruz is a coveted speaking slot at the convention, a platform that served as a launch pad to the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

With his eye on 2020, Cruz faces a difficult time of choosing between his conservative principles and the pragmatic need for party unity in the face of the coming fall clash with presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Officials in the camps of Trump and Cruz — the top two rivals in the GOP nomination battle — declined to comment on their plans for a possible stage appearance by Cruz, who will arrive at the convention with a throng of about 567 delegates.

 “Conversations about the program are just beginning,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. “This is very much something we do alongside the campaign and have now started that process.”

The negotiations are likely to be delicate, according to GOP operatives and analysts with experience in national conventions. The sensitivities involved could resonate from the top party echelons down to the grass-roots base.

“It certainly would not make sense for Ted Cruz not to have a speaking slot at the national convention,” said Dr. Robin Armstrong, a Cruz supporter and RNC member from Friendswood. “If he did not have a role at the convention, I would be shocked. If everyone is talking about unity going forward in November, that would be a good step toward it.”

Former Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri, a veteran of the 1976 convention battle between Reagan and President Gerald Ford, said much could depend on the final position Cruz takes on Trump.

“In order to have a speaking spot, you have to have endorsed the nominee,” said Munisteri, one of the Lone Star State’s 155 convention delegates. “That’s the question that comes first.”

Although decisions about speakers and other facets of the nationally televised convention program technically are up to the party, Munisteri said the most critical decisions are heavily influenced by the nominee’s campaign.

“My experience is that the presumptive nominee decides who speaks at the convention, and I would be surprised if the person deciding who speaks would agree to let somebody speak who’s not behind him,” Munisteri said.

Some analysts suggest that the decision may not be so clear-cut for Trump, particularly as he seeks to woo skeptical conservatives in what some now call the Cruz wing of the party.

“I don’t know how much Trump can control, but at this point, Trump probably needs Cruz more than Cruz needs Trump,” said Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. “Trump needs a unified convention, and Cruz leads an important constituency.”

Shirley’s chronicle of the contested 1976 convention between Reagan and Ford often is cited in Republican circles as a model for how Cruz could use a passionate convention speech to set the stage for another White House bid, as Reagan did.

After losing to Ford in a bitter floor fight, Reagan famously was invited at the last minute to join the incumbent president on stage. However unprepared, Reagan galvanized the crowd in a way Ford had not.

Shirley’s account came from Reagan field operative Kenny Klinge, who recalled a Ford delegate from Florida turning to him and saying, “Oh my God, we have nominated the wrong man.”

Few would expect Cruz to steal the show from Trump, a reality TV star who built his campaign on massively raucous televised rallies. Shirley, however, sees opportunities in Cleveland for both men, despite their bitter rivalry.

“What it requires is for both of them to get past the past and focus on the future,” Shirley said. “Both have an interest in unity. Cruz gets to speak and lay the groundwork for a future run, and Trump gets a unified convention. So, they both have a shared interest during one narrow slice of history.”

There also are risks. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett recalled the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. The main business at hand was nominating President George H.W. Bush for re-election, but it is better remembered for long-shot rival Pat Buchanan’s opening-night “Culture War” call to arms for a nationwide battle over social values.

“A lot of people look back on that and say that it damaged Bush,” said Emmett, a Republican who supported the former president’s son, Jeb Bush, in this year’s primaries. “But in this case, I don’t think there’s anything Cruz says that can damage Trump.”

While the maverick billionaire has made no public overtures to Cruz since he became the presumptive GOP nominee, he still is laboring to win the support of other top Republican luminaries, from 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Some analysts say Cruz, as a link to the party’s grass-roots base, actually could be more important to Trump.

“Cruz has structural power, because he has delegates, and he has symbolic power, because he is seen to be the heir apparent to the Republican nomination,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus.

There are risks for Cruz, as well.

“The party is closing ranks, and you don’t want to be the person who was not part of the team,” Munisteri said.

Either outcome in November could have a downside for a GOP rival who holds out: A Trump victory would leave Cruz isolated within his own party; while a Clinton victory could be blamed on conservative disunity.

If the convention presents a delicate dance for the two rivals, Rottinghaus sees the potential for a face-saving accommodation in which Cruz could campaign against Clinton without explicitly endorsing Trump.

“I think the Trump campaign would be happy to have Cruz fill the role of ‘attacker in chief’ even if he never says ‘Donald Trump is going to be the next president,’” Rottinghaus said.

Weighing on Cruz’s decision is a Texas delegation that has grown increasingly reconciled to Trump, even as most of the delegates’ loyalties remain with Cruz, including more than half the 48 delegates who are bound to Trump.

That was seen at this month’s state GOP convention in Dallas, where Cruz got standing ovations and Trump’s name hardly came up. “The Trump people just didn’t show up,” said Texas GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser.

A similar display could be awkward in Cleveland.

“There’s certainly some frustration and anger. There’s some major disappointment among Cruz supporters,” Steinhauser said. “So, I think they will focus on other things.”

That would be the inevitable debates over the national party’s platform and rules, both potential battlegrounds with implications for a 2020 Cruz candidacy.

While some Cruz holdouts remain, Texas GOP officials say the majority are going to Cleveland determined to beat Clinton. That means backing Trump — with or without Cruz.

“I expect there will be a great emphasis on unity as we move forward to Cleveland, but I think people need to have time to adjust to it,” said Texas GOP Party Chairman Tom Mechler. “It’s still pretty fresh from what happened a few weeks ago in Indiana.”

As Cruz supporter Armstrong put it: “We all understand who the nominee is. We’re not all happy about that, but we’re going to get on board. You’ve got to put on your big-boy pants, your cowboy boots and spurs, and move forward.”