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Politics

Sorry, Trump, Cruz and Kasich: These high-profile Republicans are just not that into you

GOP presidential candidate John Kasich
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, shown in Burlingame, Calif., last week, received U.S. Rep. Peter King’s vote in the New York primary, but not his endorsement.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When New York held its recent presidential primary, Rep. Peter T. King was quite specific about his sentiments: He cast his ballot for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but that didn’t mean he was endorsing his candidacy.

“If I thought that John Kasich had a viable chance, I’d come out and endorse him,” the Republican lawmaker said on MSNBC, in effect tossing a bouquet of wilted flowers at the struggling White House hopeful.

If Kasich felt chastened, or confused, he was not alone. That odd linguistic formulation has been heard throughout this fraught election season, introducing a new dodge into the lexicon of tortured political locution.

Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and Ben Sasse of Nebraska said they voted for their fellow Republican senator, Texan Ted Cruz, for president, but each avoided using the E-word.

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Nevada’s GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval caucused for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida when he was still in the Republican race, but nope, Sandoval insisted, that didn’t constitute an endorsement. Ditto for Rudolph W. Giuliani, who said he was voting for — but not endorsing — Donald Trump.

“When I endorse somebody, I join their campaign,” the former New York mayor said on CNN, offering his own particular meaning. (The verb “endorse” is conventionally defined as “to declare one’s approval or support of.”)

“I’m not joining the campaign in any way,” Giuliani said.

Veteran campaign hands, like Rich Galen, can recall nothing like it.

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“The strongest endorsement you can give is to vote for someone,” said Galen, a Republican communications strategist whose political resume includes stints with then-Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “To say you’re voting for someone but not endorsing them is a political oxymoron.”

Ken Khachigian, a former presidential speechwriter, agreed. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “A vote is an expression of advocacy, especially in a primary. You have a choice and so you’re, in effect, endorsing.”

To Khachigian, who helped polish phrases for President Reagan, the verbal contortion suggests a have-it-both-ways lack of courage and political conviction. “It’s what people are rebelling against this political season,” he said.

On Friday, it was Indiana Gov. Mike Pence knotting himself up with a not-quite endorsement of Cruz. He heaped praise on Trump, said he would vote for Cruz in Tuesday’s crucial primary in Indiana, then, as if to further muddle his intent, urged all Hoosiers “to make up their own minds.”

But where some see evasion, others see perfect reason.

“It’s not oxymoronic in the least,” said Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychology professor and semantics expert. “People vote for two reasons: to affect the outcome of the election and to express their beliefs.

“It’s unlikely that any candidate will represent one’s beliefs exactly,” Pinker said, “but if one still strongly prefers the outcome of one candidate being elected rather than another, one could very well vote for the ‘acceptable,’ ‘better of the two,’ ‘least bad,’ ‘lesser of two evils’ or ‘anyone but him’ candidate.”

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For many Republicans, that would certainly apply to the case here. They see an unhappy choice between Cruz and the front-running Trump that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina likened to picking between being shot or poisoned. He subsequently endorsed Cruz, without terrific enthusiasm.

Given efforts to thwart Trump at the GOP convention this summer, critics such as party strategist Stuart Stevens said it was not unreasonable to support a candidate now in hopes of undermining the Manhattan business mogul, with the intention of backing someone else later.

“It reflects the reality of the system,” said Stevens, who helped guide Mitt Romney to the 2012 GOP nomination.

Romney, who briefly considered another try this year for the White House, parsed his preferences in two states. He voted for Cruz in Utah but made clear he was not endorsing the senator. Just a week earlier, Romney had urged Ohio voters to back their governor — again, sans endorsement.

“Primaries are the process of picking the best available choice,” Stevens said. It’s entirely possible, he said, to vote for a candidate and later support someone else, given the opportunity.

King suggested as much in his equivocal support for Kasich. “I want to keep my powder dry,” he said, “because this might go to the convention.”

Eyes clear, options open. It’s a stance most politicians would heartily endorse.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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Twitter: @markzbarabak

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