AFTER WISCONSIN: Trump, Cruz and Kasich

If Trump falls short on the first ballot, Cruz - for now - is more likely to prevail.

"I've come this far in life. I've had great success. I've done it my way."

-Donald Trump to Maureen Dowd, New York Times

At least for now, Donald Trump is in trouble, because he won't hit a home run in Wisconsin tomorrow. If so, his problem is not just the likely underperformance tomorrow, but the real possibility of downward momentum that he will need to intercept, sooner than later.

No doubt the candidate will spin disappointing results as the inevitable climax of a week of bad press. He may argue bias and unfairness, but Trump's wounds were largely self-inflicted, and avoidable.

In short, "my way" may not be the route to the White House.

First, he could still win the nomination, but it would almost certainly have to be on the convention's first ballot. Afterwards, the depreciation of Trump delegates could be rapid, for lots of reasons, foremost of which is that many "Trump delegates" are not for him, but just voting for him, as required, on the first ballot, and then are free agents.

Second, if Trump wins the nomination, his chances to prevail in November are in jeopardy, almost entirely due to his needless self-destruction. Trump's enormous unfavorables, in general, and especially among women, are gratuitous, occasioned by his impulsive tweets and bizarre pronouncements, mainly in interviews, some inexplicably at high risk.

"I've only been a politician for eight months," as Trump has said, may no longer cut it. Civility does not require political maturation. It is not "his tone" against ISIS that is objectionable, but "his tone" against "Little Marco" and "Lyin Ted" and, most recently, against Heidi Cruz, wife of the senator, and some off-the-wall policy pronouncements and weird statements. Don't be surprised to see a new Donald Trump.

"You know," Trump told Dowd. "There are a lot of people who say, 'Don't change.' I can be as presidential as anybody who ever lived. I can be so presidential if I want." To which Dowd wrote: "Then start."

Trump does not realize that, both for any victory in Cleveland past the first ballot, as well as then an electoral victory in November, "being presidential" is more than avoiding his trademark insults. It requires briefing (that he has avoided thus far) on the great issues facing America, and even some secondary issues. For the delegates, after the first ballot, to move to you, or for the general electorate to vote for you in November they need to feel the candidate is credible.

The problem with much of the "Stop Trump" movement is that it is, the "Stop Trump" movement. In other words, that branding is what helps keep the Trump candidacy alive. People who lean Trump but are on the fence - they pivot to Trump if The Establishment wants to "stop" him.

Thus Sen. Ted Cruz does not help himself when he says, "If you want to stop Trump, vote for me." He should be creating a strong and affirmative campaign for, you guessed it, himself. At the same time, he suffers because the inept anti-Trump forces, which should have been pushing long ago for an "open" convention "for the people" instead foolishly self-branded for a "brokered convention" - which is not the case, there are no power-brokers who can fix things.

The Cruz campaign should publicly showcase disillusioned and disenchanted defectors from Trump, who now are for Cruz. This should be a movement of "the people."

Also, Trump has done Cruz a favor by his behavior all these months. By comparison, Cruz now can seem moderate in temperament. In other words, Trump has given Cruz space to develop who he is, as a person, and thus to connect emotionally with the electorate. But, so far, Cruz has stuck with the same stump speech and failed at the intimacy that, if he is the nominee, can win the election.

Cruz has an advanced delegate-operation, and assuming Trump fails at the second ballot, John Kasich is behind the curve. Cruz is not positive enough and, as noted, still mired in the wrong narrative; thus "Stop-Trump" feeds Donald Trump's "stolen convention" theme. But Kasich widely has been less against Trump than for Kasich. And what about Kasich's pitch this last weekend? He is reduced, instead, to the mundane, insider baseball on national television yesterday, that he has aboard Charlie Black and Stu Spencer, as if these are household names.

I've known both men since I was of college age, active in politics. Stu, much older than I, managed Ronald Reagan's campaign for governor when I was one of the leaders of Youth for Reagan, and the next year I met Charlie when we were active together nationally in Young Americans for Freedom. Stu is a shrewd and wise man, and - at age 89 six weeks ago - as perceptive as ever. He provides Big Picture insight, but he is not a mechanic who will work the delegates. As for Charlie, he is the ultimate Washington insider, and a multi-decade lobbyist, that is the kind of guy who Trump claims is part of the problem. Charlie knows the players, but the imagery will come across as business-as-usual.

Thus, Kasich is getting clinical on national television, when he needs to sound inspired, and with a vision that transcends his frequent personal pronoun. And with a Beltway lobbyist aboard, he is proving Trump's predictable caricature, that Kasich is about the past Old Boy Network, not the future, with Trump as Reformed Insider.

Kasich also should stick to his strongest point, that he polls markedly better in a general election (because, he can say, of his wonderful upbeat, positive message), and that delegates, intent on defeating Hillary, should find that prospect dispositive. Of course, Kasich polls well in part because neither Trump nor Cruz has taken him seriously, so he has barely been attacked. Plus, Kasich's positive demeanor in debates produces this result: among anti-Hillary Democrats and independent voters, he can, without the polarization, close the deal, and with little defection from Republicans.

Still, if Trump falls short on the first ballot, Cruz is more likely to prevail. It would take several ballots for Kasich, if that were even possible. And, ironically, that might require Trump to endorse Kasich. That's assuming Trump would not pick up his marbles and run as an independent.

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