WASHINGTON — It would be nearly impossible for the Republican Party to force Donald Trump out of the presidential race.
Yet it could be done. If his poll numbers plunge significantly further and party stalwarts urge him to step down, Republican officials could probably use some legal gymnastics to remove him from the ticket.
But the rules are written to make that exceedingly difficult. Then there's the logistical challenge. Hundreds of thousands of people have already voted, and ballots have already been printed.
"It's pretty impractical," said Steve Scheffler, a member of the Republican National Committee from Iowa. "I don't see how you can ever do it."
As long as Trump wants to remain the nominee, the party could replace him only by some legal maneuvering involving loopholes in its rules.
Trump could be felled by a write-in effort, but that could be difficult for two reasons.
First, if Trump remained on ballots, his presence would probably split the Republican vote, even if the party got behind a single alternative candidate.
Second, in many states, candidates have to register as write-in candidates and most deadlines have passed, said John Putnam, a Georgia-based rules expert.
The easiest way to dump Trump? "He would have to get out of the race," said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican chairman. Trump, under fire since Friday when a tape surfaced showing him making lewd remarks about women, said he's not going anywhere.
The Republican Party has rules to fill a vacancy should a presidential or vice presidential candidate become unable to run. No action has been taken to do so.
Party Chairman Reince Priebus issued a statement Friday night saying "No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever." But he's gone no further.
The deciders would be the 168-member Republican National Committee. Each state, territory and the District of Columbia has three members, including its chairman.
The party's Rule 9 says the committee is authorized to fill vacancies "which may occur by reason of death, declination, or otherwise of the Republican candidate for President of the United States or the Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States, as nominated by the national convention.¦"
It's the "otherwise" that could be used to remove Trump, though Anuzis noted that's regarded as applying to candidates who leave the race voluntarily.
If the committee wanted to interpret "otherwise" differently, there are other challenges. At least 16 committee members representing at least 16 states would have to request the special committee meeting, which is unlikely to be a problem. The committee would have to give its members five days notice for such a meeting. Then there are other timetables, said Putnam.
"Technically, the RNC could alter those rules, but those rules require 10 days lead time for consideration of any rules change proposal, leaving just 20 days for the RNC to coordinate a meeting," he said.
Next, he said, they'd have to "hash out who a replacement is and sell that person to the American voters." If the RNC voted, committee members would get the same number of votes their states had at the party's July convention. As at the convention, a delegation's votes can be split among different candidates. A simple majority would win the nomination.
Republican insiders considered these steps in August, after Trump stirred controversy with his criticism of the Khans, parents of an American soldier killed in Iraq. But even then, the logistics were too far along and halting the process seemed unwise.
If Trump dropped out, and people have already voted for him or choose him anyway, the fate of the Republican nominee could be up to the Electoral College when it meets later this year. Coordinating the Electoral College would be a "logistical nightmare," Putnam said. Somehow the Republican Party would have to make it clear to voters they were actually voting for Republican electors who would, in theory, pick the Trump replacement.
But, Putnam said, "some of those Republican electors are actually Trump supporters who may not be willing to defect."
And while vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, lauded for his performance in Tuesday's debate, would be the favorite to replace Trump, others could join the race. No one came close to Trump in the July balloting, though Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had a strong organization that could resurface quickly.
Cruz has never warmed to Trump, avoiding an endorsement at the convention, though he recently said he'd support him. Anuzis, who headed Cruz's campaign in Michigan, saw no sign of Cruz re-emerging, and the Michigan activist saw no reason Trump should step down.
The last time a major party nominee was replaced after a convention was in 1972. About two weeks after he was nominated as the Democrats' vice presidential candidate, news surfaced that Sen. Thomas Eagleton, D-Mo., had undergone electroshock therapy for depression.
Presidential nominee George McGovern asked Eagleton to step down. He did, after 18 days on the ticket, and a special meeting of the Democratic National Committee chose former Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver to replace him.