Bill Cobey and Robert Orr are tilting at a windbag: Donald Trump.
They know it’s quixotic, but they think their guy – Ohio Gov. John Kasich – can somehow come from fourth in the field and beat out Trump for the GOP presidential nomination. And they hope the conquest could begin with North Carolina’s March 15 primary.
They acknowledge that Trump is ahead in the polls here, but they think that in North Carolina’s semi-open primary independents might moderate the GOP electorate and Kasich might prevail. If he doesn’t, they still hope Trump can be held short of locking up the nomination before the convention in July. Then they see a scenario where delegates may settle on the most sensible, most seasoned and most sell-able candidate, John Kasich.
“The closer we get to reality and the ultimate decision, it’s not unimaginable to me that Kasich can win this,” Orr said when he and Cobey sat down last week to discuss their party’s Trump problem and what they see as the Kasich solution.
This kind of talk, in a way, is as wild as Trump’s bluster. And Orr and Cobey seem a little self-conscious about offering what seems an outlandish scenario. Kasich, after all, is trailing Trump everywhere, even in Ohio, where he absolutely must win March 15’s winner-take-all primary in his home state.
Cobey, 76, and Orr, 69, are men of deep experience, well-versed in politics and not prone to radical notions. Cobey is chairman of the State Board of Education, a former congressman and athletic director at UNC-CH. Orr is an attorney and a former associate justice on the state Supreme Court who unsuccessfully sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2008.
But now these two sensible men are allowing themselves to hope for the unlikely because the seemingly inevitable is so unacceptable. They talked just hours after the party’s last presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, made his anybody-but-Trump speech. Trump responded with disdain, recalling how Romney had so wanted his endorsement in 2012 that, “I could’ve said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He was begging me.”
Trump’s combination of brashness and lack of discipline worries Orr. “To think of Donald Trump as commander in chief is to me a frightening prospect,” he said.
Orr, who grew up in Hendersonville and calls himself a “mountain Republican,” is also chagrined that the Republican race has become so low-brow when the nation needs to debate big questions. He thinks it’s urgent that the Republican Party turn to Kasich, a governor and former congressman who knows how to get things done and when to compromise in the interest of progress.
“Somebody needs to be talking about things other than Donald Trump’s hair,” Orr said. Unfortunately in Thursday night’s debate, the discussion moved to Trump’s private physical features.
Cobey, who calls himself “a conservative Republican,” served in Congress with Kasich and said Kasich “had the energy of two men.” The Ohio governor’s conservative credentials are solid, Cobey said, but he said the governor who pushed through a Medicaid expansion is a “a model of the compassionate conservative. He really does care about ‘the least of these.’ ”
Trump, by contrast, seems unanchored by values or party principles, Cobey said. “He could as easily be a Democrat tomorrow as he is a Republican today.”
Many Trump supporters find it appealing that the billionaire is paying for his campaign and is unbeholden to donors or other politicians, but Orr said that independence cuts both ways. “That means you’re only answering to yourself, in many respects,” he said.
Trump lacks substance, Orr said. “You make America great not by saying, ‘America is great,’ but by specific ideas,” he said. Trump deals in generalities about the future, and his lack of service in public office means there’s no record of how he would govern. Those gaps mean no one – probably including Trump – knows what he would do as president. Orr said that “unpredictability” would disrupt financial markets and shake alliances.
Despite the unknown, all three of Trump’s rivals in Thursday’s debate said they would back him if he becomes the party’s nominee. Asked whether he had ruled out ever supporting Trump, Cobey said, “Let’s say I haven’t ruled him in.” But Orr won’t vote for Trump. “He’s simply unqualified to be president,” he said.
Kasich, Orr said, is the opposite. “We think he is the best qualified, has the best temperament and the best demeanor in dealing with people,” he said.
In the end, Trump’s flaws may open the way for an alternative, Orr said. “Politics is a funny game. If anybody has the capacity to blow up, it’s Trump,” he said.
Cobey thinks that alternative could be the Ohio governor who is as sensible as Trump is sensational, but he knows it’s unlikely. “I don’t feel like I’m Don Quixote,” he said, “but I realize it’s a long shot.”
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com