As speculation mounts on the prospect of an open, contested Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, the absence of old-time party leadership is painfully evident.

Until not long ago, the party's establishment had a recognized waiting list of leaders lined up for their "turn" to run for the presidency. A candidate's claim to take his crack at reaching the Oval Office was based on his party experience and general good will within the GOP club.

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After Dwight Eisenhower had his two terms, his vice president, Richard Nixon, was up next in 1960. In 1964 it was Barry Goldwater; in 1968 and 1972, Nixon again; in 1976, incumbent Gerald Ford; in 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan; in 1988 and 1992, George H.W. Bush; in 1996, Bob Dole.

In 2000, George W. Bush broke the pattern somewhat as a second-term governor of Texas and a president's son; he won and was re-elected in 2004. However, in 2008 the tradition was restored with the nomination of long-waiting Sen. John McCain, followed in 2012 by Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts in a second try. As the record also shows, most of those who waited their turn and got the nomination then lost the general election, with Reagan and the senior Bush the notable exceptions.

This time around, 17 Republicans have sought the nomination, inaccurately described within the party as a rich lode of candidates, from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on down. All proved to be inadequate, and an interloper, business tycoon Donald Trump, brashly jumped in and made a mockery of the old waiting-list concept.

His utter disregard of the niceties of the old order -- notably, common respect for the rest of the pack of wannabes -- has led to the current stop-Trump movement spurred by Romney. What is left of the establishment finds itself swallowing the obnoxious Sen. Ted Cruz, another outsider, in preference to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, more of an orthodox Republican, as the vehicle to deny Mr. Trump.

In desperation, and in a sign of disapproval of Messrs Cruz as well as of Mr. Trump, some survivors of the old establishment order have turned to newly ordained House Speaker Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice-presidential nominee, as the closest thing available beyond Kasich as the party savior.

But Ryan insists that he has no interest in, or intention of, seeking the presidential nomination, and it is duly noted he will preside over the convention in Cleveland. It is also remembered, however, that he first insisted he had no interest or intention of becoming speaker, but in the end he bowed to the will of the GOP majority in the House.

The whole scrimmage within the Grand Old Party demonstrates how what once was the orderly competition for its leadership has completely broken down, setting the party on an unknown course to an even more contentious and divisive national gathering before television's intrusive eye in July.

The foot soldiers of the Trump and Cruz campaigns are now mobilizing for the grunt work of identifying and persuading the elected delegates to the convention from the various states and congressional districts to vote for their man. It could result in the old smoke-filled room on a broad scale to settle on one or the other, or on some other "savior" of dubious ability to bring unity out of the current intraparty convulsion and chaos.

The circumstances now embroiling GOP have plenty of authors. The weak contenders for the nomination deserve a share of blame for failing to identify and capitalize on Mr. Trump's lack of qualifications for national leadership. So do the news media for only belatedly shining a light on Mr. Trump's inflated success story and checkered business career.

Perhaps worst of all has been a collective failure to unmask a man whose empty showmanship is more suited for a carnival tent than for a campaign to lead the nation in a perilous hour in its history, when one of its two major parties has so obviously lost its bearings.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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