Jeb Bush calls it an unbelievable scenario. Karl Rove says life on Pluto is more likely.
Still, national Republican Party officials and attorneys are quietly preparing for a prospect that no longer looks inconceivable: By the time thousands of Republicans converge for their convention Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, they will not have a nominee.
"Everybody that says they've got a crystal ball about the 2012 presidential election should have their head examined," said Phil Musser, a Republican strategist supporting Mitt Romney. "There have been more loops in this race than the roller coaster at Space Mountain, so for anyone to say unequivocally that we couldn't have a convention laced with drama strikes me as premature."
Take a tumultuous campaign for the Republican nomination where the normal political laws of momentum aren't playing out. Add in a primary schedule designed to prolong the contest and new campaign finance laws enabling rich individuals to keep financially strapped campaigns afloat indefinitely. It creates the clearest path to a contested convention in decades.
"Everybody keeps saying it's impossible, but we know it's possible," said Al Cardenas, president of the American Conservative Union and former Florida GOP chairman, of the prospect for a wild and unscripted Tampa convention. "It's possible no one has enough delegates to win the nomination and then all it takes is that person not to be able to coalesce with someone else to put them over the top."
Momentum usually pushes a candidate to the nomination as one victory leads to another and other contenders step aside. Actually clinching it, however, requires amassing 1,144 delegates in primary and caucus elections across the country.
Officially just over 100 delegates from four states have been bound to Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich out of 2,286 total delegates at stake. But even now pundits are widely speculating about a "brokered convention," where GOP power brokers could step into the chaos and anoint a nominee, either one of the current candidates or a white knight from outside, such as Bush, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"I cannot imagine it. He certainly would not put himself forward,'' longtime Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw said of the former Florida governor. She expects Romney will ultimately clinch the nomination.
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Even if nominal front-runner Romney regains his footing and on Tuesday wins primaries in Arizona and his native state of Michigan, the primary calendar all but guarantees no one will lock up the nomination at least until late spring.
After "Super Tuesday" on March 6 when 11 states vote, two-thirds of the available delegates will have yet to be awarded. And under national party rules, the roughly two dozen states and territories voting in March will award their delegates proportionally, divided among the four major candidates.
Starting in April most contests are winner take all, but with four credible candidates campaigning through May, it's plausible no one reaches the 1,144 threshold.
"I would say it's highly possible that Mitt Romney continues to lead but doesn't have enough delegates at the convention to win the nomination on the first ballot,'' said Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative in Miami who recently changed his registration to Libertarian out of disenchantment with the GOP field. "Mitt Romney is the weakest Republican presidential front-runner in my lifetime."
That scenario, remote though it may be, is where things would get really interesting.
States have different rules for how long their delegates are bound to support the candidate to whom they initially committed. In some cases, they become free agents after one round of balloting, in others after multiples rounds of balloting.
The political jujitsu required by the campaigns at that point would likely extend to trying to stack and lobby members of the RNC rules and credential committees for advantages as they interpret arcane rules few people have studied since Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan vied for the nomination at the 1976 Republican convention. Those committees have not yet been appointed and won't meet until a week before the Aug. 27-30 convention.
Already a protest challenge is expected on whether the 50 delegates Florida awarded to Romney on Jan. 31 should actually be divided proportionally based on the four candidates' vote shares.
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Republicans have not had a brokered convention since 1940 in Philadelphia when Wendell Willkie wrested the nomination from Thomas Dewey after six ballots. Convention rules have changed dramatically since then, however, and in the tea party era few true power brokers are left in the GOP.
"It's about as likely as winning Powerball twice in two days," Republican National Committee spokesman Matt Connelly said of a brokered convention.
Still, after a primary season that already has defied predictions and seen nine different candidates at the top of national polls, many veteran Republicans don't rule out what was once unthinkable for Tampa in 2012.
"If that unlikely scenario were to take place, we'd be better off to emerge from the convention with a fresh face than a face that's been battered after five rounds of voting," Cardenas said when asked about the prospect of his longtime friend Jeb Bush winding up the nominee. "He wouldn't consider it today, but no one knows when you're in the dynamic of that nature and there's so much at stake."
Unlikely but more plausible than a brokered convention would be a "contested convention" where no one has amassed 1,144 delegates by the time Utah casts the final votes on June 26.
"A more likely scenario if no candidate achieved the nomination at the end of the process would be some measure of deal-making and brokering well in advance — between the candidates — probably in late June or July,'' said Musser, the Republican strategist supporting Romney.
There would be behind the scenes horse-trading among the candidates to swing their delegates one way or another. Would Paul push Romney over the top if his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, wound up on the ticket? Or if the GOP platform featured the gold standard? Would Santorum wind up the vice presidential nominee?
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Tampa convention organizers already have their hands full raising $50 million and planning the logistics of housing, transportation and security for tens of thousands of delegates, dignitaries and journalists. An unscripted, dramatic nomination fight in August would mean great ratings for broadcasters, but another realm of challenges for convention planners.
Normally, convention hosts handle the myriad logistical challenges, and when a nominee emerges his team puts together the content of the convention itself. Without a clear nominee, that would be left up to the RNC and its convention team.
"Ultimately we look forward to having a nominee. Those decisions don't have to be made yet and we're not going to make them yet," said James Davis, spokesman for the 2012 convention. "We're pretty early in the process right now. The delegate count is still pretty far away at this point."
But it's not too early for many party leaders to start fretting about a bruising nomination fight that appears to be only helping President Barack Obama, whether or not the convention winds up in turmoil.
Cardenas, for instance, is calling for the candidates to focus on their visions for the country and tone down their attacks on one another before "throwing this election away." He thinks the RNC may regret crafting a primary calendar aimed at extending the contest through as many states as possible.
"We're going to run out of real estate pretty soon given the dynamics of this race if we don't coalesce around one of these candidates sooner or later. Whoever's our nominee will need a good six months to be competitive with the incumbent,'' Cardenas said. "The (primary) rules that the RNC has in place were fine for 2008 and fine when there's an open seat, but they're just not wise when you're fighting a powerful incumbent."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]