Newt Runs a Risky Course with The Donald

Newt Runs a Risky Course with The Donald

“I'll be endorsing somebody. If that person doesn't win, then I guess I'm a free agent - my show will be over by then.”

-- Reality show host and real estate developer Donald Trump on “FOX & Friends.”

When erstwhile GOP frontrunners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney met with Donald Trump, they did it with all the fanfare of a guy going to see his doctor for a Viagra prescription.

Perry met Trump at an upscale New York restaurant for a hush-hush conversation – no cameras – and Romney slipped in and out of Trump’s eponymous Manhattan tower without being caught by the press.

But frontrunner turned non-runner Herman Cain gave Trump the full media treatment during Cain’s moment in the sun, even hosting a press conference under the gilded letters bearing Trump’s name.

Today, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gets his face time with The Donald.

Gingrich is the fourth person to lead the GOP field since the debate season began on May 26. By the Real Clear Politics Average, it’s been: Romney May 5 to August 23, Perry August 24 to Oct. 3, Romney again from Oct. 4 to Oct. 19, Cain from Oct. 20 to Nov. 11, a ten-day muddle and Gingrich from Nov. 21 to the present. The Trump audition has been one of the toughest tests for each of them.

Cain’s history-making campaign (what other candidate has ever quoted Japanese anime action franchise Pokemon in his or her withdrawal speech or sung a pizza-based spoof of John Lennon’s “Imagine?”) offers good instruction on how not to do it. Standing outside on the curb under Trump’s name for a press conference suggests the seriousness and credibility of Omarosa when she got fired from the first season of NBC’s “The Apprentice.”

Had Cain instead ditched The Donald or at least arranged a stealth meeting like the other two frontrunners, he might have added some credibility to his brand. Cain didn’t need celebrity at that moment and might have even benefited from the kind of feud in which Trump is now engaging with Ron Paul had Cain snubbed the self-mythologizing mogul.

Rep. Michele Bachmann has met with Trump four times, participated in a tele-town hall with the reality host and even said he might be her running mate if she wins the Republican nomination.

Bachmann, who at her highest-point in the polls on July was 10 points behind frontrunner Romney, has actually handled the Trump thing pretty well. She is desperate for publicity and attention for her campaign, and Trump is desperate to be seen as part of the discussion on the Republican side of things. They developed something of a symbiotic relationship. He gives her headlines (even if they are mocking ones in the establishment press) and Trump gets to give mainstream TV interviews about how he’s helping to drive the discussion in the GOP. He’s more than a reality host, Barbara Walters can say, he’s a GOP kingmaker… but be sure to tune in to the new season of his show in two months.

Bachmann will go anywhere to bash her GOP opponents and call for no compromise with liberals, whether its Trump’s pad or PBS. For someone lacking money and a path to the nomination, any platform that allows her to be heard in her warning of disaster is a good one.

But it’s not so easy for Gingrich. Gingrich is currently enjoying a massive surge in support, but he lacks the money and organization necessary to do what Perry and Romney have done and try to minimize the publicity from their Trump touching. Gingrich has a tiger by the tail with his lead and can’t afford to fall out of the national spotlight for even one moment.

Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman have both openly mocked the idea of meeting with Trump and dismissed out of hand the idea that they would participate in his proposed Dec. 27 debate. That’s good politics in that it gets bank-shot publicity, but it’s not the kind of media frenzy that Gingrich needs.

At the same time, though, Gingrich can’t afford to be seen as a Trump-ish candidate like Bachmann or Cain. That’s likely why the Gingrich campaign nixed the idea of a press conference at Trump Tower in favor of one later in the day at the Union League Club. Yes, Gingrich will have to answer questions about Trump, but it won’t look like he’s Trump’s underling.

But Gingrich is planning to participate in Trump’s debate in Iowa two days after Christmas. None of the other campaigns have declared – other than the flat nose from Paul and Huntsman – but Gingrich says he will be there with Trump one week before the caucuses.

While Romney and Perry look for a way to duck what promises to be the most cringe-inducing spectacle of the GOP primary process, Gingrich jumped at the chance. It’s a huge risk and one that reflects the precariousness of the former speaker’s position atop the polls. He needs the attention, but the light of Trump’s glare is unflattering.

Trump is providing Republicans a way out by his statements that he may run as an independent if the candidate he endorses does not win the nomination. That’s the kind of reckless talk that should give any Republican plausible cover to disavow business impresario Trump.

It seems unlikely that Trump is serious about a run since he is again conditioning his candidacy on the status of his reality show. Anyone who allows the evaluation of the relative business skills of Lil’ Jon and Gary Busey to interfere with his seeking of the presidency is not likely in it to win it.

But the explicit threat of a third-party candidacy in an election where even one or two percent of the vote could certainly tip things in the favor of President Obama should be enough of an excuse to let Romney, Perry and rest off the hook.

While Trump’s high name recognition and success in taunting Obama into showing his birth certificate give him some cache in national polls, the die-hard Republicans who dominate the primary process won’t like the idea of Trump toying with a third-party run if his candidate doesn’t win. Paul and Huntsman are on to something: there is political profit to made these days from fighting with Trump.

As for Gingrich, he has 22 days between his New York audition with Trump and the Trump debate in Iowa. What he does (and what others do to him) in those three weeks will matter more than anything, but it’s not hard to see Trump’s post-Christmas sideshow as the best moment for Gingrich to jump the shark.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on