"People who think he's a joke and a fool need to be careful because by the end of the campaign, the joke may be on them." That's how Joe Scarborough summed up the surprisingly respectful analysis of Donald Trump's candidacy on today's Morning Joe.
Introducing the segment, Scarborough suggested that if Trump sticks to a Perot-like populist message, he could get 15% of the primary vote. When Joe turned to Steve Schmidt, this NewsBuster expected the former McCain campaign manager and establishment Republican to dump on Trump. But to the contrary, Schmidt agreed heartily with Joe and went on to make the case that Trump is channeling widespread popular resentment, is the man people would want to hear in a debate, and could be "very impactful" in the race. John Heilemann was similarly respectful of Trump's potential, saying he "doesn't play by the rules and is fearless," and receives serious, generally favorable local coverage in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
STEVE SCHMIDT: I think the commentary that calls him a joke is nuts. He's saying the things that millions of Americans shout at their television sets every night. He's saying it with authenticity. He is a cultural icon in this country. There are 350 million of our fellow Americans out there. He's a unique person. He's been in the public stage for four decades now since the 1980s. He has a very successful television show. He is a master showman. And there is a strain of populism that is ascendant in the Republican party. You hear Donald Trump talk about these issues. They're going to resonate with large sections of the Republican base.
When you look forward to these debates. Let's say Marco Rubio is answering a question. Who are the people watching the debate going to want to hear from in the next question? They're going to want to hear from Scott Walker or are they going to want to hear an answer from Donald Trump? He's endlessly entertaining. Endlessly fascinating. He has the potential to be very impactful in this race.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Let me tell you how he is dangerous, also. Everybody can say what they want to say, but if he focuses and he does well, he can get a percentage in a 20-person field that makes a difference.
But this how he's dangerous. This is how he's dangerous. And it hasn't been reported here. And we're not picking on George Stephanopoulos. But this is how he is dangerous to other candidates. He doesn't play by the rules. George Stephanopoulos interviewed him. He started to ask him a question about Hillary Clinton and Donald cut him off. He said come on, should you really be asking me a question about Hillary Clinton? You're laughing. But I guarantee that you George liquified when that went on. He said: should you really be asking me a question about Hillary Clinton right now? Is that really appropriate? He goes: I'll answer the question, but come on, George, you shouldn't be doing that. Okay. That's fine. That's a TV anchor. If that happens to one of us, big deal. When he's on a debate stage and he turns to Scott Walker or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush and hits them not with something not mean spirited but searing and truthful that nobody else in polite political society would say, it can shape a race. And so all these people saying that he's going to have no impact, they don't get it.
SCHMIDT: Who is the candidate on the debate stage that is going to be able to take him on mano a mano?
JOHN HEILEMANN: He's fearless. He's fearless and he doesn't care.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Sam [Stein], what you are laughing at? You almost sound a little bit -- hold on.
HEILEMANN: Look, the elite opinion about him is that he is a clown and joke. A lot of things he says don't withstand scrutiny. A lot of things he says, if you fact check, these claims he makes are not true. But you point out correctly. He doesn't play by the rules and he's not afraid of anybody. And that makes him really dangerous. He is a human IED.
And I'll tell you the other thing that is true. We went and looked at yesterday, on Bloomberg, what local TV coverage. National press, comedians, Jon Stewart, everybody mocks him. But if you go and see how he was covered when he went to Iowa after his announcement, they treat him like a celebrity, like an icon and like a plausible, serious presidential candidate. I know that's how the coverage is in New Hampshire too. He arrives in places where voters are. And what voters see on local news is, the Donald is here. and that's great.
. . .
SCHMIDT: The point about Donald Trump is this. In a field where there are 15, 16 candidates, you have an iconic cultural figure who is running for president with vast amounts of wealth who is completely fearless, who on all of these issues that he is talking about, there is resonance with them with huge swaths of Republican voters in these early primary states. And so when Donald Trump goes out there at a time where trust is completely collapsed in every institution in this country and says I'm going to fight for you, the regular guy, I'm going fight for you, regular Americans out there that are struggling, that are getting sold short by the political class in the country. It's a powerful message and he can be very impactful.
SCARBOROUGH: Everybody talks about Trump being a joke and he says a lot of things obviously that are crazy, but you don't become a billionaire, you don't become one of the top developers in New York City, you don't have the best-selling, one of best-selling business books of all time, you don't have one of the most successful TV shows of the past decade and graduate at the top, near the top of your class at Wharton by mistake. So all I will say is, right now at the beginning of this campaign, people who think he's a joke and a fool need to be careful because by the end of the campaign, the joke may be on them.
NB readers are encouraged to weigh in. Can Trump be a real factor?