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Will the growing group of Republican White House candidates support Donald Trump if he prevails in his quest for a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination?EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/Reuters

The biggest, perhaps most explosive and surely the most consequential issue facing the Republican presidential candidates as they gird for the 2024 campaign isn’t abortion. Nor immigration. Nor even American policy toward the war in Ukraine. And not taxes and spending, either.

It’s the question of whether the growing group of Republican White House candidates will support the party’s eventual nominee.

Usually this is a question without significance; of course they would. But this time, it is a matter of enormous importance and, like everything else in American politics, at the centre of the issue is former president Donald Trump.

In short, will his competitors support Mr. Trump if he prevails in his quest for a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination? It’s a critical question for the party. And – an even more crucial unknown – will Mr. Trump support another Republican if he is denied renomination?

This issue will take on new urgency in coming days. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida makes his first trip to Iowa, site of the first 2024 caucuses, on Friday – the same day former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley will be in the state. Mr. Trump, who at the CPAC confab Saturday said he would stay in the race even if he is indicted, will follow five days later.

For campaign after campaign, this sort of issue never presented itself. Contending candidates for party nominations bicker, belittle and besmirch for months in caucuses and primaries. The threat of fights on the national party convention floor waxes and then, in every instance since the 1980 struggle between president Jimmy Carter and senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, eventually wanes. The level of enthusiasm of the losing candidates vary but the party generally leaves the convention city with sufficient evidence to claim unity – fragile, sometimes – for the general election campaign ahead.

“What we face now – and it’s very early – is highly unusual,” said Scott Reed, the veteran Republican strategist who was the campaign manager for senator Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “But we live in the time of Trump. All the old norms are out the door.”

Party leaders are so worried about this issue that they have taken steps to nudge declared and potential candidates toward pledging they will get behind the eventual nominee – an echo of the nudge that Mr. Kennedy needed to join Mr. Carter on the dais of the Democratic convention in New York after the incumbent president beat back his rival’s effort to persuade delegates to repudiate their commitments to support Mr. Carter on the first ballot. It was agonizing to watch, and Mr. Carter eventually was defeated by former governor Ronald Reagan of California.

Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel – customarily so congenial to Mr. Trump’s wishes that she even abandoned using her maiden name, Romney, as part of the 45th president’s caustic offensive against her uncle, the 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney – has threatened to require such a pledge as a condition for being seated at party-sponsored debates later this year and into next year.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer, right?” Ms. McDaniel said on CNN’s State of the Union program. “If you’re going to be on the Republican National Committee debate stage asking voters to support you, you should say, ‘I’m going to support the voters and who they choose as the nominee.’”

The response has been tepid. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who has been the most outspoken among Mr. Trump’s skeptics (he’s even questioned the former president’s mental stability), said he would conform to the demand if he becomes a candidate, as is increasingly likely. Former governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas is resisting the loyalty pledge. Another former Republican governor, Larry Hogan of Maryland, declared Sunday that despite entreaties to run, he would demur – but in an essay in The New York Times said, “We cannot afford to have Mr. Trump as our nominee and suffer defeat for the fourth consecutive election cycle,” adding, “To once again be a successful governing party, we must move on from Mr. Trump.”

A third former governor, declared candidate Ms. Haley of South Carolina, has made it explicit that she believes Mr. Trump’s time has passed, but nonetheless said she would support the eventual nominee. Former vice-president Mike Pence won’t say one way or the other.

Explicit loyalty pledges are unusual – because they usually are not required.

Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York conducted a bitter contest in 1964; the two men, Mr. Goldwater a strident conservative and Mr. Rockefeller a dreamy liberal, had colliding views of the future of the Republican Party. Mr. Rockefeller hesitated until the first week of October, but in an address at a forum for GOP state candidates, finally said, “We are pledged to support our candidates … right down the line all the way and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Mr. Goldwater lost 44 states in a landslide defeat to president Lyndon Johnson.

However, more than a century ago, former president Theodore Roosevelt, estranged from his onetime protégé William Howard Taft, won nine of the 13 party primaries but the party establishment rallied to renominate Mr. Taft in the 1912 election. Mr. Roosevelt bolted the Republicans, formed his own party (known popularly as the Bull Moose Party), and ran a separate campaign. His defection doomed Mr. Taft, and governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey won the election.

That is the ultimate nightmare Republicans are trying to avoid.

If Mr. Trump is denied the nomination and runs as an independent – those who know the former president say that is not beyond the realm of possibility – the Democratic nominee would be at an enormous advantage, as a third of the customary GOP vote would be siphoned off to the Trump efforts.

Mr. Trump attempted to create party unity with his CPAC address Saturday but is not falling behind Ms. McDaniel’s entreaties for party unity after the nomination fight is settled.

“It would depend,” he said in a radio interview. “It would depend on who the nominee was.”

His campaign spokesman followed up, in essence suggesting that the question was moot. Mr. Trump, after all, expects to be the nominee himself.

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