Handling the Trump in the Room

Handling the Trump in the Room
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There’s an elephant in the Republicans’ room that just won’t budge.

Ted Cruz is trying to befriend it. Rick Perry is kicking at its shins. Chris Christie wants to pay it no attention without being offensive.

The elephant, of course, is Donald Trump. The image may not be quite apt—Trump’s Republican bona fides are suspect, indeed, and he’s hardly being ignored by the voters, media, and other candidates. Truth is, many would argue an ornery monkey jumping about the room, throwing things, and performing tricks for the onlookers, would be a better comparison.

Republicans, who have made a concerted effort to avoid this type of zoo, may consider Trump a nuisance, for but so far he cannot be contained—not by boycotts, not by media criticism, and certainly not by a warning phone call from the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Such efforts have only seemed to fuel his rise in the polls, placing him second only to Jeb Bush. 

Whether Trump continues this upward trajectory or drops out of the race before actual votes are cast remains to be seen. What matters now is that he will likely be on the prime time debate stage in Cleveland next month, and he’s sucking up a whole lot of oxygen from candidates who need it most between now and then, when media attention is at a premium.

These candidates, therefore, have to handle Trump’s presence—and perhaps more precisely, his comments on immigration—in ways that fit their respective primary goals. It’s a difficult balancing act: to ignore him may be to underestimate his constituency, but to engage him may acknowledge your own vulnerability.

Rick Perry, who ranks near the bottom of the polls in his second run for the presidency, was able to garner some national attention by calling Trump out.

“I have a message for my fellow Republicans and the independents who will be voting in the primary process: what Mr. Trump is offering is not conservatism, it is Trump-ism – a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense,” the former Texas governor said after Trump criticized his border security efforts. 

Perry’s first-hand experience with border security has been a selling point of his campaign, but he has also tried to address immigration reform and illegal immigration in a more compassionate way. His immigration stances—particularly his support for giving in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants—became a liability for him in the 2012 GOP primary.

“We need a president who will finally act to secure the border after decades of failed leadership in Washington, D.C. And Mr. Trump has done nothing to prove that he is the president America needs,” Perry said on Thursday.

Other candidates at the bottom of the pack have taken a similar approach in actively knocking Trump. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who co-wrote the upper chamber’s comprehensive immigration bill, called Trump a “wrecking ball” for the party. Rick Santorum, the oft-forgotten runner-up in the 2012 primary, made this observation about Trump: “All that glitters is not gold.”

Trump, however, could be a silver lining for these lower-tier candidates who don’t make the main stage. He might also help those candidates who don't qualify for the first debate. “If Trump is there, it will be a circus—no one will remember who else is on stage; they’ll remember the ridiculous one-liners that Trump shouts,” says one Republican campaign strategist. “He will eventually cross a line that even his most ardent supporters believe is a bit too far.  I think he’s testing those boundaries now. 

Candidates such as Ted Cruz could benefit from a Trump flame-out. The Texas senator has taken the opposite approach of Perry and others by embracing Trump, particularly on immigration. The difference, however, is that Trump threatens to cut into Cruz’s support and constituency. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has taken a more conservative stance on immigration than he had previously, could also be threatened by Trump’s traction. Walker has been relatively quiet about Trump. Cruz, however, requested a meeting with Trump in New York this week, and praised his rival afterward for shedding light on the problems of illegal immigration.

“I think Donald Trump is bringing a bold, brash voice to this presidential race,” Cruz told NBC News, nothing that he himself has been advocating for similar issues. “One of the reasons you’re seeing so many 2016 candidates go out of their way to smack Donald Trump is they don't like a politician that speaks directly about the challenges of illegal immigration.” 

Cruz is currently polling in eighth place, according to the RealClearPolitics national polling average, and has shown some concern about making the prime time debate requirements for the first forum next month. Fox News has limited the number of participants on the main stage to those polling in the top 10 nationally. The remaining candidates will participate in a debate earlier that day. This week, his campaign asked Fox News to better define the polling standards.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose chance at the nomination rests largely on New Hampshire, has been trying to strike something of a balance, telling Fox News recently he is tired of being asked about Trump when there are other important issues on the table, while also acknowledging that “Donald is still a friend … and I like him personally.”

“His comments were inappropriate—that’s now the 50th time I’ve said it and it’s going to be the last time I say it,” Christie told Fox and Friends on Monday. “Seriously, when I’m out there talking to folks, nobody in the real world asks me about this. Nobody. But every time I get on a media show, all anybody ever wants to talk about is Donald Trump.”

Notably, all Donald Trump seems to want to talk about, and attack, is Jeb Bush. 

Unlike his other competitors, the former Florida governor may have the most to gain by Trump’s oxygen-sucking nature. For starters, Trump can be a foil to Bush and make him appear more presidential, like the thoughtful adult in the room. Additionally, Bush isn’t competing with Trump for the same voters. The real estate mogul is pulling away support from Bush’s rivals, the candidates vying to be his alternative.

The liability for Bush, however, comes if and when his Republican rivals see an opening for attack, and join Trump’s efforts to undercut him. The Bush campaign is already taking the possibility of a pile-on into consideration during debate prep, according to Politico.

For his part, Bush engaged Trump by comparing him to the chief opposition: President Obama. “Whether it’s Donald Trump or Barack Obama, their rhetoric of divisiveness is wrong,” Bush said in Iowa earlier this week. “A Republican will never win by striking fear in people’s hearts.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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