By Jonathan Easley - 08/19/15 06:00 AM EDT
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpAFL-CIO head: Trump’s ‘a fraud’ Gingrich, Christie top Trump’s VP list: report Overnight Cybersecurity: DNC hacker Guccifer 2.0 speaks out MORE is steamrolling the competition in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination.
On Tuesday, a second national poll conducted in the wake of the first GOP debate found Trump with a double-digit lead over the next closest contender.
The businessman and reality TV star is also shaping the policy discussion, forcing other contenders to weigh in on the far-right proposals in his immigration plan.
When Trump’s rise first began to register in the polls in early July, his ascendance was met with mild bemusement and the near-universal belief among Republicans that the he was a temporary, media-driven phenomenon likely to burn out by the end of summer.
Now, Republicans wonder how far he can go.
“Can he win? He sure can win,” said former Iowa Republican Party political director Craig Robinson. “He’s running roughshod over the rest of this field because the other candidates have allowed him to. This is a high stakes poker game and you have a guy playing aggressively, owning the table and dictating how everyone else moves.”
Two new national polls show Trump increasing his lead over the GOP field.
A Fox News survey released over the weekend showed Trump with a more than 2-to-1 lead nationally over Ben Carson, who placed a distant second.
Meanwhile, a CNN/ORC survey released Tuesday showed Trump’s lead spiking to double digits after the same survey from late July showed him leading Jeb Bush by only 3 points. He has had double-digit leads in nine of 13 national polls since mid-July.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump has led in every poll since late July.
The polling numbers have some national Republicans, who believe Trump is bad for the party, sounding the alarm.
“The entire GOP establishment, including the party and the campaigns, should take Trump seriously and treat him as someone who is doing considerable and long-lasting damage to Republicans,” said GOP strategist Nino Saviano. “Unless we neutralize 'The Donald,' we will come out of this fight with much more than just electoral bruises. His low blows are going to cripple us politically for some time to come.”
Trump has increasingly begun relishing the role of attack dog, allowing his rivals to strike first and then wading into the muck after them as if it was something he had hoped to avoid.
At an hour-long, unscripted campaign rally in New Hampshire on Friday night, Trump mocked fellow candidate Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who has attacked Trump’s past support for liberal causes, for being short.
He then issued a stark warning to Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP nomination battle who has been critical of his remarks about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, and launched into a tirade over the former Hewlett-Packard chief’s record as a businesswoman.
“Be careful Carly,” Trump warned. “Be careful.”
On Saturday, Trump landed his helicopter at the Iowa State Fair and conducted a question-and-answer session with the chopper and its emblazoned “TRUMP” insignia serving as the backdrop.
There, he lambasted Bush as a “puppet” of special interests and ripped Scott Walker’s record as governor of Wisconsin. Then he rounded up a group of children and took them on a helicopter ride.
Two months after his campaign launch, most of the Republicans running for president still appear handcuffed by Trump, seeking to strike a balance between a high-minded focus on policy and the need to engage in political combat.
“Those lower in the polls are on the attack trying to raise their visibility, and those closer to Trump in the polls are trying to stay above it all and look presidential in hopes that he’ll eventually implode,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “Neither strategy has worked so far.”
Now, Trump is driving the policy discussion.
Over the weekend, Trump released a proposal to address illegal immigration, with an assist from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the most hawkish Republican in the Senate on the issue.
Trump proposed building a wall along the border that he says he would make Mexico pay for, said he would end birthright citizenship and massively increase the number of officers charged with tracking down and deporting illegal immigrants.
One by one the GOP contenders were forced to weigh in on the plan.
Bush, the former Florida governor, who many conservatives have criticized as soft on immigration, said the plan was “not grounded in reality.” Fiorina said it was unreasonable to expect a constitutional change to end birthright citizenship. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) said Congress would never pass it. Walker said the plan is not much different from his own.
“He’s forcing the conversation in a way that the other candidates would probably like to avoid,” said Republican strategist David Payne.
Still, Republicans say that respect for what Trump has accomplished, and fear over what he could accomplish, has not reached critical mass yet. All eyes are on the pro-Bush super-PAC Right to Rise to see if part of the group’s $15 million ad buy in early-voting states takes aim at the front-runner, even though the group says early ads will focus solely on Bush's accomplishments.
“The tell-tale moment, when you’ll know that these candidates are taking him seriously, is when their super-PACs go up with negative ads against him,” said Bonjean. “That will announce that Trump is arrived and has staying power, and we haven’t seen that yet.”
Indeed, for many Republicans, the long-standing arguments about why Trump will fade hold true.
They continue to point out that Trump is benefiting from an exponential advantage in media coverage, and maintain that he has a low ceiling of support because huge swaths of the Republican electorate say that they would never even consider voting for him.
They say that whether it’s one spectacular scandal that emerges or death by a thousand gaffes that Trump’s freewheeling speaking style and tendency to court controversy will ultimately doom him.
Republicans see cracks emerging when Trump is forced to confront his liberal past and veer from the emotional but vague core of his argument about “making America great again.”
“If Republicans generally are taking him more seriously, so is the media, and now the attention is turning to scrutiny,” said Doug Heye, the former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Heye noted a series of questionable remarks Trump made in an interview with Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" over the weekend. The businessman said he gets his foreign policy advice from commentators on TV, and said he didn’t care whether Ukraine joins NATO.
“What people are seeing is that when he’s subject to scrutiny, that the emperor has no clothes,” Heye said. “That will start to add up.”
But none of these things have slowed Trump’s momentum yet.
“I still don’t think national Republicans are taking him seriously enough,” said Robinson. “People in both parties said the same things about the Tea Party movement in 2010. They said it wouldn’t last, that the anger isn’t channeled into anything. But what we’re seeing in this primary is another level of disgust and frustration, and it’s something that needs to be taken seriously.”