Trump's re-emergence poses risks, benefits for Republican contenders

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems seek to chip away at Trump’s economic record Trump to sign directive to reform commercial space regulations Trump on collision course with Congress on ZTE MORE has re-emerged as a major player in Republican primary politics, creating headaches both for the candidates who embrace him and for those who reject him.

The businessman and reality-television star, who weighed a bid against President Obama earlier this year before opting not to run, is moderating a debate in Iowa on Dec. 27, which would be the last scheduled debate before the caucuses.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have agreed to participate, while Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman have turned it down. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate Pawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota MORE have yet to publicly make a decision.

Iowa and New Hampshire polls conducted by NBC News and Marist last weekend showed the danger Trump poses to the candidates: A strong plurality of Republicans in those early-voting states said they were less likely to vote for a Trump-backed candidate. 

But snubbing Trump carries its own risks. The business mogul is always welcome on the cable news networks, and has used that access to blast both Huntsman and Paul, calling them “joke” candidates.

“I think most candidates are going to join, and I think these two candidates have zero chance of getting elected, so it makes no difference,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday. “I think that they are joke candidates and they are doing very poorly.”

Paul and Huntsman have taken their own shots at “The Apprentice” star. 

“I don’t understand the marching to his office,” Paul said on CNN on Sunday, while Huntsman told Fox News on Monday that he was not “going to kiss [Trump’s] ring or kiss any other part of his anatomy.”

And Paul’s campaign criticized the other candidates for participating in Trump’s debate. 

“They hurt themselves by playing Trump’s games,” said Paul spokesman Jesse Benton. “Donald Trump is a quite a showman, but he is a circus barker, not a statesman … Trump can be a lot of fun, but he is only concerned with one thing — promoting Donald Trump, not fixing the serious problems we have facing our country. Serious people should leave him to his casinos and reality TV and get back to solving our pressing issues.”

Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s senior political adviser, in an appearance on Fox News, criticized Trump for playing games but said the candidates are “all going to get stuck going to this debate” because of Trump’s promise to endorse one of them.

Perhaps the best example of the GOP field’s complicated relationship with Trump was demonstrated by Romney. The former Massachusetts governor met with Trump at Trump Tower in New York City in late September, but then sneaked out of the building rather than risk a photo opportunity.

“This is an ‘enter at your own risk’ situation: If you do this debate you risk being part of [a ‘Saturday Night Live’] skit afterward,” said Tyler Harber, a Republican strategist. “There’s a lot of downside to this … to be a part of something that will be lampooned by everybody.” 

On the other hand, Harber warned that angering Trump could lead to bad press as well. 

“Part of the risk is you don’t want to make him angry at you, because he thrives on earned media, he’s very talented on it, and has no problem taking shots at candidates,” he said. “Part of kissing his ring is disarming the bomb that would be Donald Trump.”

The candidates seem to understand that risk. Trump, who briefly led the GOP field in polls after questioning whether Obama was born in the United States, has had one-on-one meetings with candidates throughout the year, sitting down with Bachmann, Perry, Romney and Gingrich.

Gingrich hailed the business mogul after a Trump Tower meeting on Monday. 

“This is a country that elected a peanut farmer to the presidency. This is a country that elected an actor who made two movies with a chimpanzee to the presidency,” Gingrich said. “Donald Trump is a great showman; he’s also a great businessman. I think one of the differences between my party and the other party is we actually go to people who know how to create jobs. We need to be open to new ways of doing things.”

He added that he would “definitely” embrace Trump’s endorsement.

An earlier version of this article misidentified which candidates had agreed to attend the debate.