NEW YORK • The temporary alliance between Texas senator Ted Cruz and Ohio's Governor John Kasich, formed to deny Mr Donald Trump the Republican presidential nomination, was already fraying almost to the point of irrelevance just hours after it was announced to great fanfare.
Under the pact - in which the two candidates agreed to cede forthcoming primary states to each other - Mr Kasich will, crucially, stand down in Indiana's primary on May 3 to give Mr Cruz a better chance of defeating Mr Trump there, while Mr Cruz will leave Oregon and New Mexico to Mr Kasich.
It appears to be a measure of last resort, but initially it seemed like a breakthrough. Mr Cruz trumpeted what he called the "big news" in Indiana, a state that appears pivotal to stopping Mr Trump from winning a majority of delegates.
"John Kasich has decided to pull out of Indiana to give us a head- to-head contest with Donald Trump," the senator said.
But at his own campaign stop in Philadelphia on Monday, Mr Kasich tamped down Mr Cruz's triumphalism. Voters in Indiana, Mr Kasich said, "ought to vote for me" even if he would not be campaigning publicly there. He added: "I don't see this as any big deal."
Under the best of circumstances, the arrangement between Mr Cruz and Mr Kasich would seem to be a long shot - more of an expedient step to stop Mr Trump from winning in Indiana next week than a permanent joining of forces.
Far from forming any kind of unity ticket, Mr Trump's remaining challengers have both vowed to triumph at the Republican convention in Cleveland, and they remain irreconcilable on key matters of policy. Their agreement deals only with three states, leaving an open question on how directly they will compete with each other everywhere else.
Even in Indiana, emerging as the most important state, the Cruz-Kasich pact appeared something less than decisive. While Mr Kasich's campaign cancelled his public appearances in the state, the governor was still slated to visit Indianapolis yesterday for a fund-raising event at the Columbia Club. And he still had meetings scheduled with a series of Indiana Republicans, including Governor Mike Pence.
Mr Cruz's campaign privately advised supporters on Sunday not to endorse tactical voting, whereby his supporters might switch their allegiance to Mr Kasich in states where the Ohio governor is running stronger against Mr Trump.
"We never tell voters who to vote for," read the Cruz campaign's suggested talking point. "We're simply letting folks know where we will be focusing our time and resources."
Mr Trump, who has taunted his opponents throughout the race for their "Keystone Kops" approach to undermining his campaign, seemed to relish the continuing strain between his two remaining rivals.
On Twitter, he mocked "Lyin' Ted Cruz" and "1 for 38 Kasich", referring to the latter's dismal winning record in the Republican race, for being unable to beat him on their own. "So they have to team up (collusion) in a two on one," Mr Trump wrote. "Shows weakness!"
At a campaign rally in Rhode Island, the New York tycoon boasted that his opponents were united against him and said he welcomed their "collusion".
"Actually I was happy," he said, "because it shows how weak they are."
Allies of both Mr Cruz and Mr Kasich did not exactly disagree with that assessment, and acknowledged that the prospect of imminent disaster in Indiana had been the impetus for the deal. Still, aides to both men seem acutely aware that they risk turning off voters who might find the arrangement unseemly.
Even before his rivals' agreement, Mr Trump had complained repeatedly that the nominating process was rigged against him. With Mr Trump expected to win all five of the east coast states that were voting yesterday, the next opportunity to slow his campaign will come next week in Indiana. Republicans believe he must be stopped there if they are to deny him the nomination.
NEW YORK TIMES