Now that Donald Trump’s signature campaign “issue” – getting President Obama to reveal his full birth certificate – is over, he faces a big question: Can he turn himself into a serious presidential contender, if that is even his goal?
Mr. Trump has ridden far on “birtherism.” Some polls show him leading the large and still-forming GOP pack, based in part on name ID and his aggressive approach toward the president. Trump says he’ll announce in June if he’s running, but political analysts have their doubts that he can reinvent himself into a credible candidate. This is especially so, given that his second act appears to be a focus on Mr. Obama’s academic record and whether he deserved entry into Ivy League universities.
Some high-profile public figures have asserted that Trump’s new line of attack smacks of racism.
“That’s just code for saying he got into law school because he’s black,” said “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer on the “CBS Evening News” Wednesday. “This is an ugly strain of racism that’s running through this whole thing.”
Even if Trump were to try to pivot toward a serious discussion of the issues of the day – gasoline prices, the deficit, unemployment – some Republican strategists have their doubts that the reality star/real estate mogul can withstand sustained scrutiny by primary voters.
“Donald Trump has the shelf life of unrefrigerated milk,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
“The Republican-primary electorate in this country is very dissatisfied with the current range of choices,” Mr. Ayres adds. “They’re going to flirt with a great many possible candidates. But there’s a great gulf between flirting and getting married. Donald Trump is the flirtation of the moment.”
Indeed, a Rasmussen poll of GOP primary voters released Tuesday, the day before “Birth Certificate Day,” showed Trump leading the prospective Republican pack with 19 percent. He is followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 17 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with 15 percent. The fact that Mr. Huckabee polls so high while showing few serious signs that he’s planning to run is an indication of how such early polling isn’t terribly predictive.
But it does indicate who is getting voters’ attention. And Trump clearly has the attention-getting skills of P.T. Barnum himself. In his press appearance in New Hampshire Wednesday, where he boasted of getting the president of the United States to accede to his wishes, Trump did touch on serious issues, but fact-checkers quickly dumped cold water on some assertions.
For example, Trump claimed that the US gets no oil from Libya and that the Chinese are Libya’s biggest customers.
One Republican strategist speaking on background said he would take a possible Trump candidacy seriously when and if he hires “some top-flight politicos,” such as a respected pollster. But so far, that hasn’t happened.
Some analysts are convinced that the Trump spectacle is all about boosting ratings for his TV show, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” not about a serious play for the presidency.
“Trump is less than the sum of his parts,” says political scientist Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “But one thing he has is an instinct for the camera and how to keep it trained on him.”
As a potential presidential candidate, Trump has the same problem as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – suspicion about what he actually knows about the major issues of the day.
“What does he know about the wave of democracy in the Mideast, about European finances, let alone our own?” says Mr. Jillson. “Any fool can do a sentence or two on most major issues, but talking sensibly in paragraphs about serious issues is another matter.”