Playing the Trump Card

"He feels things like a normal guy from Queens. Not like a politician."

That's Maggie Gallagher, stalwart defender of traditional marriage, on The Donald.

When asked about gay marriage, real-estate tycoon and longtime media celebrity Donald Trump sorta shrugs, sorta hesitates, because it's not something he wants to campaign on or particularly talk about. But he says he's against it, and has said so a few times now.

"I just don't feel good about it. I don't feel right about it. I'm against it. And I take a lot of heat because I come from New York ... I'm opposed to gay marriage ... We have other problems in this country. I don't think a president should be elected on gay marriage or not gay marriage."

Yes, this is Donald Trump speaking, the man whose previous ventures into wedlock have been the stuff of tabloid legend. And he's talking about gay marriage with a straight face because he says he's seriously considering running for president of the United States, in the Republican primary.

Needless to say, he's not quite a normal guy from Queens. But when he talks about politics these days, he could sound like he reflects Queens' values.

He also reflects the innate optimism of the outer-borough native regarding upward mobility, a cherished dream that perhaps even this economy has not managed to kill.

The kind of optimism people don't mind hearing in a candidate for office.

And so maybe the fact that The Donald has tied for second place (with Mike Huckabee) in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal presidential survey isn't all that shocking.

"Does this finding mean that Republicans have suddenly developed a passion for gaudy architecture and bad hair?" John J. Pitney Jr., politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, asks jokingly, reflecting the seriousness with which many are taking the buzz around Trump. "Nope, the number doesn't mean much at all. Only a couple of major would-be candidates have even formed 'exploratory' committees, and some other potential contenders are still undecided. Several of them are unfamiliar to most voters. In this situation, many respondents will pick Trump simply because they recognize his name. And since it will be months before they have to make a real choice, they feel free to give whimsical answers. Jabba the Hutt would probably poll well, too, but that doesn't mean that anybody would vote for him."

"I'll say with a high degree of confidence that Donald Trump isn't going to be elected president, nominated for president, or win a single presidential primary or caucus," William Voegeli, author of "Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State," tells me. "Many more people know him, because of his skyscrapers, lifestyle and television show, than know about Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty's records as governors."

Right now, with nearly no one in the race and certainly no one as entertaining as Trump -- who seems willing to say just about anything that is on his mind -- he seems to be enjoying the speculation and the attention. The longer you're in it, though, the hotter the spotlight and the more intrusive the questions. Odds are, he's not going to have patience for the scrutiny to come, especially when it starts dwelling on bankruptcy, business practices, marriages and character. Trump's entertainment value would wear off, too, as questions of trust and confidence became more important.

Still, though, knowing Trump's checkered, scandal-ridden past, the fact that people are taking him seriously seems to hint at something beyond mere novelty.
But he's not just a prime-time show. He also serves as a bit of a warning.

A recent Fox News poll showed 50 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents are unimpressed with the GOP presidential field. In instances where people are familiar with the names Pawlenty and Romney and all the rest who are being discussed, there's not a lot of enthusiasm. It's early, and perhaps that's just fine. But the intensity with which some are insisting on alternatives -- drafting Chris Christie or Marco Rubio or others engaged in important work -- is more than a pre-season tailgate distraction.

"I think it reflects the weakness of the multitudinous current field," Maggie Gallagher says about Trump's popularity. "People like Trump because they feel he's a big strong guy who 'tells it like it is' and 'is on their side.' It's the same appeal Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie have. He's going to get the bad guys for you."

The typical guy from Queens -- the typical voter -- naturally wants someone who shows he has some fight and resilience in him. Trump gets the right kind of attention because he possesses these qualities, even if the fight and resilience might largely center on his own ego. He presents himself as a passionate advocate for American exceptionalism in the face of leaders' dereliction of constitutional duties, and it resonates with citizens.

Serious candidates ought not to dismiss the Trump pre-show, but to learn from his appeal. He does know a thing or two about marketing, after all, and smart communications has been known to help the good and well-intentioned win a fight or two.

Column Campaigns & Elections 2012 Presidential Donald Trump