By testing the waters of a presidential run, Donald Trump is probably gaining financially even as he wins attention politically. At least so far.
That's the view of some analysts of US politics and culture, who say Mr. Trump's expanded media exposure – whatever his own motivations may be –comes with dollar signs attached.
"It's a win-win situation," says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a University of Southern California expert on celebrities in US society. At best, the door keeps opening wider toward an improbable run for the White House in 2012. If that doesn't happen, she sees him reaping financial rewards, with rising visibility and a chance to cultivate a wider brand.
"It's very hard to put a precise dollar sign to what happens to Trump's bank account," says Professor. Currid-Halkett, author of "Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity." But visibility on the political stage, "if used correctly, can create new lines of revenue and new entrepeneurial efforts."
His career already shows a drive in that direction, with a knack for parlaying name recognition as a real estate mogul into cash as an author and TV personality. ("Political Apprentice," anyone? Or maybe a political talk show?)
Still, the audience ratings of Trump's current reality show, "Celebrity Apprentice," have sent mixed signals in recent weeks. They rose strongly after Trump began playing up his presidential aspirations earlier this year, but declined this month. Ratings can be influenced by many factors, of course, not just by headlines about The Donald wading into the "birther" controversy.
The potential downside
But some political analysts warn that Trump's foray into politics comes with risks to his brand.
"There's an old axiom in presidential politics: You're never as popular as the day before you announce," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
After that comes closer scrutiny from the media, attacks from opponents, and even tough questions from ordinary voters.
"This is what will happen to Donald Trump," Dr. Sabato says via e-mail. "A fleet of aircraft, swanky hotels, and public relations specialists can't prevent it."
In that context, Trump may need to weigh what he calls serious political aspirations against the potential up-and-down trajectory of the process. At some point along that arc, Sabato suggests, there's a sweet spot where Trump can "maximize ... influence, popularity, and earning power, before the precipitous decline begins." That point could be just a month or two away, he adds.
If Trump moves into full campaign mode longer term, he might start spending part of his personal fortune for ads and other costs. That could cut two ways, perhaps giving him some advantage over candidates with smaller bankrolls, while also depleting his own funds.
Does he have a shot?
All this is separate from the question of whether he becomes a viable contender for the Republican nomination. Professor Becker sees that as a long shot, judging by a newly released New York Times/CBS News poll.
In the poll, 35 percent of Republicans said they view Trump favorably, and 32 percent view him unfavorably. But, beyond that, he faces the challenge that nearly 60 percent of Republicans said they did not believe he was a serious candidate.
"There is a serious place for politicians who were once celebrities," Becker says. It's just not clear if Trump can fill that role in 2012.
But whether a Trump candidacy ends up as entertainment or politics or a bit of both, for now it's show time. Even allowing for some negative headlines along the way, the man who has long symbolized the blend of celebrity and business can't pass that up.
"Even if someone becomes less suitable as a political candidate," says Currid-Halkett at USC, "it doesn't mean that they become less suitable as a celebrity to pay attention to."