For some time on Thursday, it appeared like the #NeverTrump movement inside the Republican Party could become a real thing. And then, at the end of a raucous debate, it wasn’t.
Last night, the candidates on the stage spent two hours (on top of a week) saying that under no circumstances should Donald Trump be the Republican nominee. Then they said unequivocally that they would support Trump if he were.
As Trump himself might say: They were politicians, all talk and no action.
Just hours earlier, Mitt Romney offered an indictment of Trump in a speech from Utah. While Romney may not have changed a single Trump supporters’ mind, that was not the point. The point was to stop Trump’s momentum and galvanize other Republicans around that cause. That kind of scene -- the previous Republican nominee going out of his way to criticize the Republican presidential front-runner -- has not happened since 1912. That was the year the Republican party split.
And the Republican Party appeared to be headed toward a real split on Thursday. It wasn’t just Romney speaking into the wind. This past week significant money was put into a national stop Trump effort, including an ad buy in Florida. Republicans had meetings about how to maneuver the delegate system during the Republican National Committee convention.
The debate introduced this fissure to the broadest possible audience, though largely through schoolyard taunts. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz argued that Trump would not only lose to Hillary Clinton, but he would also be a bad president who would undermine the conservative movement.
But during the last question of the night, when the candidates were asked if they would back Trump as the Republican nominee, they virtually raised their hands (large and small) and said OK.
To be sure, the #NeverTrump movement will continue, thanks in part to its funding. But instead of stopping Trump’s momentum last night, the other candidates on the stage stopped the #NeverTrump movement.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame.