In the aftermath of the South Carolina primary, it is no longer possible for even the most complacent conservative to pretend that Donald Trump is not a strong favorite, if not the likely Republican presidential nominee. He not only has won the last two primaries but also owns large leads in the polls in virtually every upcoming state. Nothing he does or says — no matter how outrageous or contrary to conservative principles — is enough to disabuse the approximately one-third of the GOP electorate that backs him. While, as Marco Rubio pointed out yesterday, that still means up to 70 percent of Republicans don’t want him to be their standard-bearer, so long as he can avoid a one-on-one standoff with one of his rivals, or even a three-man race, it isn’t likely that he can be stopped.

From the point of view of supporters of Rubio and Ted Cruz, that puts the onus on the two GOP candidates that finished on the bottom in South Carolina — John Kasich and Ben Carson — to join Jeb Bush on the sidelines so as to prevent Trump’s nomination. While it is reasonable to assume that both will pull out sooner or later, the math of the primary schedule dictates that it is going to have to happen quickly if it is to have any effect on the outcome.

With respect to Carson, it doesn’t appear that any forms of persuasion will be enough to convince the neurosurgeon to give up. Though his results have been poor and his poll numbers keep heading south, until he runs out of money, he’ll continue. But given his paltry support, it’s not clear whether his withdrawal would have a major impact even if he did was immediate.

But Kasich is a very different story. Though at this point his path the nomination is as unlikely as Carson’s, he, too, is sticking to it, but for very different reasons.

Kasich’s victory scenario consisted of a plan that saw him more or less moving to New Hampshire in the months before the primary. The hope then was that he could win the state or finish a strong second and gain momentum heading into the next part of the primary schedule. Almost improbably, he did finish second as Marco Rubio collapsed following his bad debate performance. But while that was an achievement of sorts, his 16 percent was less than half of the 35 percent Donald Trump received. That was followed by a dismal performance in South Carolina.

But unlike Bush, Kasich has hope, even if it is more fanciful than a realistic shot. In the wake of his New Hampshire performance, he has more money coming in the form of large donors that previously backed Chris Christie, another moderate/establishment candidate that has fallen by the wayside. Kasich’s plan now is to pin his hopes on doing well in Michigan on March 8 and winning in his home state of Ohio on March 15. However, even if that happens, it’s hard to see where Kasich goes after that. The Ohio delegation might make Kasich a kingmaker in a contested Republican convention, but the odds of that happening remain small.

Nevertheless, Kasich does have a rationale for his candidacy. He sees himself as representing the cause of a compassionate conservatism — much in the mode of George W. Bush — that strikes a more moderate tone that even the other so-called establishment candidates on social and fiscal issues. So long as he can hope to win Ohio, he sees no reason to defer to Rubio, who remains the strongest of the alternatives to Trump or Cruz and the one with the best prospects of winning in November. After all, both Kasich and Rubio can each claim to have finished second to Trump in a primary. It’s not much of a distinction, but it makes him unlikely to get out until it is too late to help stop Trump.

As slim as Rubio’s chances might be, they now hinge on getting Kasich out of the way in the same manner that Bush removed himself from the race. But there seems no way to accomplish that task, especially since he is not yet broke.

That is very good news for Trump. But it also begs the question of whether what Kasich is doing is signaling that he doesn’t think a Trump nomination is as much of a calamity as the backers of Cruz and Rubio may think it to be.

Both Cruz and Rubio believe they should be the alternative to Trump but not just because they each want to win the nomination. Though their ambitions are key to what they are doing, it should also be acknowledged that they clearly see a Trump victory as a betrayal for conservatives. Kasich has been the anti-Trump in terms of a determination to make nice with other candidates. But his sticking to a presidential run that hasn’t much of a chance does make one wonder if he thinks Trump is not quite the catastrophe that other more doctrinaire conservatives see.

Does Kasich really think he can win? Does he believe he can outlast Rubio and become the establishment option against Trump? Or is he playing a long game in which the goal might be a convention deal to nominate someone else? Or is it a spot on the ticket if his persistence helps ensure that the frontrunner never faces a one-on-one challenge until he is already too far head to be derailed?

What this means is that although he got into the race late and has been lightly regarded for most of the campaign, Kasich’s candidacy might turn out to be the most consequential of any save Trump. By staying in the race for another month, the Ohio governor may be single-handedly determining the outcome by splitting moderate votes with Rubio.

Every candidate has the right to play out the hand that he has been dealt and that means Kasich can stay in until he runs out of money or is humiliated in his home state. But what is now starting to become clear is that Kasich may turn out to be the Republican kingmaker even if there is no brokered convention.

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