Once there were three friendly and pragmatically inclined Republican governors. All were thinking of seeking their party's presidential nomination.
All fancied presenting themselves as experienced state-level bipartisan problem-solvers who would seek to rescue the national party from the problem-making of Donald Trump.
First, Maryland's Larry Hogan bowed out because too many candidates would serve only to split the anti-Trump vote and elevate Trump's base to the nomination-inevitability of pluralities in state after state. Then Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas jumped in.
Then, three days ago, New Hampshire's Chris Sununu bowed out for the same reason Hogan gave, adding that he was well-placed as New Hampshire's governor to exert possible non-candidate influence in the state's important first primary.
Thus you could say that Asa won a pre-primary. You could conceptualize, but dare not predict, that Hutchinson could make some version of a surprisingly strong showing in the opening Iowa caucuses, then survive to the opening primary in New Hampshire where Sununu might be in a position to help him.
But that's mere theorizing, and the real-life practicalities haven't been so good for Hutchinson yet. And the campaign calendar offers little time for languishing.
CNN, which Republican primary voters don't watch so much, had Hutchinson on in the afternoon of Sununu's withdrawal. Hutchinson said he agreed that, in time, candidates who couldn't show strength would need to get out of the race.
But he explained that, at this point, we're more than two months from the first Republican National Committee debate, which, he said, would offer the first and best opportunity for the lesser-known candidates to make their marks.
You knew instantly that, if CNN's Wolf Blitzer could play tee-ball, Asa had planted for him a fat home run of a question on the tee. Indeed, Blitzer asked it: Wasn't it possible at this point that Asa might not even qualify for the debates?
What's happened is that Republicans have acted to avoid a repeat of their primary in 2016 when they confronted unwieldly candidate fields, even requiring two heats of debates. Real candidates debated in the main event. People like Lindsey Graham and George Pataki did a warmup event.
This time, the Republican National Committee has imposed the strictest criteria yet for qualifying for debates. Candidates must show 40,000 donations with at least 20,000 of them spread over 20 states. They must show up at 1 percent at least in three qualifying national polls or two national ones and a state one in one of the four early-event states--Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. And they must vow to support the eventual nominee in the general election.
(DROP CAP) Each criterion is a problem for Hutchinson.
On the donation element, he told CNN he was fine on that even as he hastily threw in his web address for online donations.
On the polling, Real Clear Politics shows him teetering at the threshold--at 1 percent in two recent polls and at 1 percent in one in Iowa.
And on the question of whether he would pledge to support the eventual nominee, please follow Hutchinson's sliced-and-diced answer carefully: He said he had always voted for the party's nominee. He said he expected to vote as always for this one. He said he did not expect Donald Trump to be that nominee. He said he had never liked loyalty oaths and opposed them as a matter of principle. A more meaningful pledge, he said, would be for candidates to be required to vow that they, if losing the race for the nomination, would not wage a third-party candidacy.
Let me put Asa's answer another way; mine, not his: He's a lifelong loyal Republican and resents being told he must agree to support Trump, who is a destructive force of personal grievance, not party interest, who ought to be made to pledge that he would not run as an independent if denied the Republican nomination.
By another scenario, a party loyalty oath might suit Hutchinson's purposes. Eight years ago, Trump was elevated among voters liking disruptive independence when he, alone in the big field, raised his hand center-stage when debate participants were asked if any of them would decline to agree to support the eventual nominee.
Now the RNC won't even permit Hutchison the opportunity to emulate that. It won't let him get in the debate unless he pledges not to do such a thing.
What if he did it anyway? What if he signed the document, then, in the debate, renounced his pledge on the basis that it was unfairly required, explaining that he was ever-loyal to his party and its heritage but simply could make no promises if the party repeated the tragic error of nominating Trump again.
Might that give him the distinctive attention he requires?
What am I saying? He still needs to poll at 1 percent to get that opportunity.
P.S.--Maybe Asa's biggest accomplishment thus far has been to win a nickname from Trump, who calls him Ada. That would qualify as offensive gender derision if Republican primary voters were capable of getting offended by anyone other than Hunter Biden.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.