“We settled on George Bush way before the campaign,” said Rob Gleason, the longtime Pennsylvania Republican chairman. With a word more pungent than “slop,” Mr. Gleason recalled, “Everybody was happy: He flew us all down to Austin, and we were like pigs in slop.”

The bulwark provided by such establishment backing enabled Mr. Bush to withstand the insurgent campaign of Senator John McCain, and win the nomination.

That era of Republican coronations appears to be over…

“This may be the first time there really is a chance since ’76 where you don’t know the outcome before you go into the convention,” said Steve Munisteri, the Texas party chairman, referring to the clash between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan…

“We’re not going to shut down people,” said Mr. Gleason, the Pennsylvania chairman, adding, “We might have 20 people at the first debate.”