Courting Trump holds risks for GOP candidates

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 03: Donald Trump addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition June 3, 2011 in Washington, DC. The Faith and Freedom Coalition is holding their second annual conference and strategy briefing over two days in the nation's capital. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump
Donald Trump addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition June 3, 2011 in Washington.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

As a longtime tabloid fixture, reality TV star, and Obama birth certificate conspiracy-theorist-in-chief, Donald Trump has never had a problem finding new ways to remain in the limelight. And when Trump welcomed another major Republican presidential candidate to his gilded Manhattan nerve center on Monday, the New York real estate mogul once again demonstrated an uncanny ability to remain a part of the political conversation.

Mitt Romney became the latest White House hopeful to seek favor with Trump on Monday afternoon, following on the heels of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and prospective contender Sarah Palin, all of whom have convened with Trump this year. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Herman Cain confirmed that the former Godfather's Pizza CEO will be the next in line to seek the Trump seal of approval.

Romney gives press the slip at Trump meeting
Donald Trump and Rick Perry chow down in NYC

The presidential contenders' efforts reflect the business and media titan's continued sway over segments of the Republican base -- a status he has cultivated through frequent appearances on Fox News and at conservative gatherings, where he has touted in his characteristically bombastic way an anti-Obama absolutism, combative stance toward China, and newly discovered social conservatism.

Trump toyed with a presidential run himself earlier this year and enjoyed an unlikely stint as the GOP front-runner (according to the polls, at least). But his crusade to highlight already debunked questions about Obama's citizenship -- a quixotic campaign that the White House ended once and for all when it released the president's long-form birth certificate -- has left The Donald fighting ingrained perceptions of him as a national punch line.

For that reason, the Republican candidates' courtship of Trump is a risky endeavor that threatens to provide a convenient general election attack line against whoever becomes the party's nominee.

"I don't get it. Just because Trump has the biggest ring, doesn't mean it deserves to be kissed," said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. "Voters don't care about Trump. Just the opposite. I think most Republicans find the Trump ritual confusing and off-putting."

The balancing act of seeking Trump's blessing -- or evading his wrath, at least -- while avoiding the potentially detrimental optics of doing so was on full display Monday when Romney was ushered into Trump's midtown Manhattan headquarters through a side door, while an aide led waiting news photographers and reporters to believe that he was running late, according to reports.

For its part, the Romney campaign has yet to acknowledge the meeting even took place, and multiple aides to the former Massachusetts governor ignored requests for comment about why it was scheduled.

But Trump spokesperson Michael Cohen was not nearly as reticent. According to him, the Romney campaign contacted the Trump organization "weeks ago" to set up the get-together.

"Interestingly enough, none of the candidates coming to see Mr. Trump have asked him for any money," Cohen told RCP. "They are all seeking his endorsement as the billionaire real estate mogul, who I've recently coined as the godfather of politics."

Cohen said that Trump will make a decision on whether and whom to endorse "no later than June" 2012.

Until then, almost inevitably, Trump will continue to hold out the possibility that he might still enter the race himself.

"If, in fact, he's not satisfied with who will be the Republican candidate, he may elect to re-enter the race in June as a third-party candidate," Cohen said.

Romney's attempt to quietly woo Trump, an effort that inevitably turned public, is all the more striking considering his broader campaign strategy of positioning himself as the more electable Republican front-runner, while branding Perry as all style and little substance.

Aides to Jon Huntsman, who has sought to position himself as the serious-minded problem-solver in a field crowded with candidates eager to kneel before the far right, gleefully highlighted Romney's summit with Trump.

"Gov. Romney's Trump courtship certainly won't help him in New Hampshire," Huntsman spokesperson Tim Miller said. "We're rooting for Governor Romney and The Donald taking a helicopter to Manchester to announce this key endorsement, the search for the birth certificate, and their conveniently timed flip-fops on abortion."

The Democratic National Committee piled on by releasing a Web video that drew attention to Romney's meeting with Trump and highlighted the reality TV star's "You're fired!" catchphrase to emphasize his over-the-top persona.

"We're just as excited as 'the Donald' that Mitt Romney made time to court Trump's endorsement in earnest," DNC press secretary Melanie Roussell said in a statement. "The duo really have a lot in common: supporting similar out-of-touch policies that would slash Social Security, end Medicare and further line the pockets of the wealthiest Americans -- like themselves -- at the cost of middle-class Americans. We wish them the best of luck today, because we know that their message is a winning one . . . for Democrats."

For the time being at least, Trump's position as a GOP powerbroker of sorts appears secure.

But even some of the aides to candidates who have met with Trump question the reasoning behind their own campaigns' logic in playing ball with him.

"Why is everyone kowtowing to this guy?" one early-state adviser to a candidate who has met with Trump asked in near disbelief. "Trump will do whatever the hell he wants anyway. None of these meetings will stop him if he thinks he's the only man who can save the world."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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