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Jac Wilder VerSteeg: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio should have raised hands against Donald Trump

The outrage is not that Donald Trump raised his hand. The outrage is that none of the other Republican candidates for president raised his hand.

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and the others should have lifted their hands high Thursday night when the questioner asked them whether they would not pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee and would not promise to forgo an independent run for the presidency.

Of course, Donald Trump raised his hand and refused to make that pledge.

By not raising their hands, the other candidates missed an opportunity to say that if Donald Trump is the nominee, they would not support him.

And they missed a chance to give him a dose of his own medicine. Jeb Bush, for example, could have pledged that if Trump is the nominee, Jeb would mount a third-party challenge.

Even if he said it with tongue in cheek, it would have been a high point of the debate and would have vaulted Bush above what was essentially a lackluster performance.

Because of Trump’s threat to run a third-party campaign, responsible Republicans have a bad choice. They can either nominate Trump and lose to Hillary Clinton – assuming she’s the Democratic nominee – or they can refuse to nominate Trump, see him run as an independent, and lose to Hillary Clinton anyway.

But imagine the race a different way. What if Trump is the nominee and Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Scott Walker is the spoiler who runs as a third-party candidate. The payback and comeuppance would be wonderful. Trump would be assured of losing and assured that whatever money he poured into the effort would be wasted.

Even though such a scenario is unlikely – it still is almost impossible to believe that the GOP would nominate Trump – the fact that all the other major candidates signified they would support him is jarring.

One other thought about the possibility of third-party candidates: Many commentators said Rubio had a good night. Jonah Goldberg is an example. He said, “Marco Rubio gave the kind of performance that attracts voters and donors: disciplined, future-oriented and entertaining.”

Rubio’s claim to be the candidate of the future is aimed squarely at both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, whose last names are sooo yesterday. If you dissect Rubio’s actual positions and proposals, he might more accurately be called the candidate of “warmed-over yesterday.” But for now, accept his desire to be the candidate of tomorrow. He could be missing a huge chance to prove that he’s just that.

If Rubio truly were bold, this would be a perfect time to leave the GOP behind and mount a truly new party. It’s likely that Rubio’s new party could not prevail in 2016. But with the right candidate and the right message, a new party might be able to bottle that lightning within a few election cycles.

Rubio is young enough to start making that pitch. Jeb, unfortunately, probably is too old and too welded to the GOP to break away. If Rubio won’t do it, maybe Scott Walker could.

Young Rubio keeps claiming to be the candidate of the future. He should be able to clearly see the future in Florida’s voter registration statistics. More and more new voters are shunning traditional party labels. That trend is driving the new push for open primaries in Florida. A constitutional amendment very well could be on the 2016 ballot – making it the perfect moment for a credible third-party presidential candidate – such as Marco Rubio – to be on the ballot.

Of course Rubio is hoping to be on the ballot in a more traditional way – as either the GOP’s presidential or vice presidential candidate. But if he is, Rubio would face the same GOP dilemma. If he’s the nominee, he’s likely to have to contend with a Trump third-party challenge. And if Trump is the nominee and Rubio is in the veep slot…? Would Rubio actually accept such a position?

Not if he’s the candidate of tomorrow. Under those conditions it would be far better for Rubio to be the third-party candidate.

But Rubio, like Jeb and all the others, stood there flat-footed and pledged to support the GOP nominee even if it’s Trump. They had a chance to say they would reject Trump’s comments about Mexicans. They had a chance to reject his insulting stance toward women. They didn’t.

Their promise to support Trump was – hands down – the biggest gaffe of the evening.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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