In three weeks, Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party will host the first debate of the 2012 presidential primary season. A new Washington Post/ABC poll finds that none of the possible Republican contenders is currently running ahead of President Obama in a head-to-head match-up. And less than half of Republicans and Independents who lean to the right are pleased with list of Republicans most likely to make a run.
The charismatically-challenged cast of Republican candidates likely to be on camera for that first debate is expected to include: Tim Pawlenty , Rick Santorum, Haley Barbour, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.
Now, against those nice but uninspiring candidates throw in billionaire Donald Trump. Let your imagination run wild. Let the fun begin. The blunt-talking real estate developer and reality television super-star has indicated that he may very well announce his bid for the White House in the coming weeks. If he does he will be on stage, too, because he qualifies as the leading Republican candidate in several polls. He certainly has the money and the name identification, two key ingredients for any successful run.
In a Republican field that is simultaneously wide open and overcrowded, the 64-year-old magnate is becoming the focus of attention because unlike even the most radical Tea Party politicians he has no inhibitions about making outrageous statements.
In recent days he has condemned the Japanese, even as they recover from an earthquake, for “ripping us off for years.” He believes we seize Libya’s oil. This week Trump disparaged Mitt Romney as a “small businessman,” with far less wealth. He’s even made statements about African-Americans that could be interpreted as racially inflammatory, referring to “the blacks.” And he has even changed his position to become an opponent of abortion.
He has also become the nation’s leading “Birther,’ again playing to what some see as a racially sensitive issue, with his own investigators trying to dig up evidence that President Obama was not born in Hawaii.
There is no downside for Trump in this circus. He is not upset at the thought of losing because losing makes no difference to him. He is still getting publicity and raising the value of his brand. With a net worth of over $2 billion dollars to fund his campaign trump is says he still plans to ask people to send in campaign donations. He is rich but so far he has not spent a dime for all the free press coverage. And the bet here is that if he decides to run he will do it with other people’s money.
He may also lead the GOP down the garden path before deciding, like Ross Perot back in 1992, to run as an independent.
For leading lights in the Republican Party this Trump triumphant scenario is a nightmare. The GOP needs the election to be a referendum on President Obama. They need a reasonable, solid, non-controversial candidate to soak up all the anti-Obama energy in the country. The GOP cannot afford to play into the President’s political hand by looking extremist or frivolous.
The GOP empire is striking back:
Ari Fleischer, the White House Press Secretary under President Bush, said: “I'm sorry, I think Donald Trump is making a fool of himself. When you look at what he did, it is not presidential….you do not go around saying that our current president, who I don't agree with, is kissing people's a**. It's just not the temperament people look up to in the oval office.”
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer on Monday night's "Special Report" said, "It's all name recognition. He is a celebrity, he is on television and a guy who talks about winners and losers. The vulgarity of him is offensive."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and former Bush advisor Karl Rove have criticized Trump for advancing the theory of the “birthers” who believe President Obama was not born in the United States. Here what Rove told Bill O'Reilly on March 30:
The right- wing base of the Republican Party -- I'm part of that right-wing base -- is not in love with the issue of birthers. I mean, there is an element inside the Republican Party and outside the Republican Party that's fallen in love with this. But the vast majority of Republicans and the vast majority of Americans accept that he's a U.S. citizen and capable of being president. And this is a distraction… This is a mistake. It will marginalize him. And he's falling for Barack Obama's trap. Barack Obama wants Republicans to fall into this trap, because he knows it discredits us with the vast majority of American people when they do.
While other potential candidates have given weak non-answers to the birther question, saying they “take the President at his word,” Trump lays it all on the line. "What is he, baby Jesus?" he quipped in an interview with Bill O’Reilly. "People have birth certificates…He doesn't have one…Maybe it says he's a Muslim, I don't know" he said. "If he wasn't born in this country, it's one of the great scams of this time."
So where does that leave us?
In a recent poll of Republican primary voters conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, Trump tied with Mike Huckabee for second place with 17%. Only Mitt Romney, with 21%, garnered more support for the nomination. In a general election contest against the President, Romney comes closest to the incumbent, trailing by four points at 49-45, and Huckabee trails by 6 points at 50-44. This is at a time when 57 percent of Americans, according to the Post poll, disapprove of the president’s job performance, a record low for President Obama.
There is no downside to all of the media attention for Donald Trump. He has already pulled in the equivalent of millions of dollars in free advertising for his name AND the Trump brand. Whether he ultimately enters the race for the presidency or not, there's one man in the Republican field who's already laughing all the way to the bank.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It."