Can Trump become more than a ‘birther’ candidate?

April 27, 2011

Donald Trump stepped off a helicopter Wednesday morning, declared victory in the war over President Obama’s citizenship and promptly shifted to what may become the next focal point of the real estate mogul’s flirtation with presidential politics.

“Now we can talk about oil. We can talk about gasoline prices,” Trump said. “We can talk about China ripping off this country. We can talk about OPEC doing numbers on us like nobody has ever done before.”

On Wednesday, Trump made stops in a one-day swing through New Hampshire that began moments after the White House released an image of Obama’s birth certificate. As Trump publicly tests the waters for a run at the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, he has spent the past weeks sharing his doubts about whether Obama was born in the United States.

“Today I am very proud of myself. I have accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish,” he told reporters in an airplane hangar. “I was just informed, while on the helicopter, that our president has finally released a birth certificate.”

The question now, some Republicans said Wednesday, is whether he can change the subject and move past his role as the “birther” candidate.

“When you’re questioning the legitimacy of a sitting president and you don’t have clear proof to back that up, that’s a pretty serious charge,” said GOP pollster David Winston, echoing the view of many top Republicans who long ago declared the birther issue an irrelevant distraction that could backfire with voters who don’t doubt the president’s citizenship.

“And then to suddenly say, ‘Oh, let’s forget about that. Let’s move on to other things’ — that’s not easy. The topics you raise say a lot about who you’re going to be as president.”

Trump has said he is seriously considering a run for the White House and will make an announcement in three weeks, after he wraps up the current season of his blockbuster reality TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice.”

In New Hampshire, Trump bluntly tried to pivot to economic issues. He is likely to follow a similar script in trips he has said he will make to Iowa, South Carolina and back to New Hampshire next month.

Republican strategists and tea party activists said Trump’s celebrity combined with his flirtation with birtherism has attracted media attention and allowed him to harness some of the anti-Washington sentiment that showed up during November’s elections. After a few weeks of public appearances and interviews, and without declaring yet whether he will run, Trump rode his name recognition to the front of the GOP field in a number of public polls of Republican voters.

Several Republicans said Trump has plenty of credibility to talk about the economic issues at the forefront of most voters’ minds.

“Donald Trump is not going to need any tutelage from advisers on the economy,” said Ralph Reed, a conservative strategist and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “Trump, and in a different way [Indiana Gov.] Mitch Daniels with his business background and Mitt Romney as a former private equity guy, will all be able to turn to Barack Obama and ask, ‘When, in your entire lifetime, in either the private sector or in your political career, have you ever created a job?’ That’s not a bad contrast.”

Trump’s celebrity and chutzpah also help. In New Hampshire, he was introduced onstage as a business mogul and entertainment icon. He used his time at a plant that makes military equipment to blast Obama as weak on jobs and the economy, employing the kind of rhetoric that has defined his career as business tycoon and television star.

“China is raping this country,” Trump told about 100 workers at Wilcox Industries. “OPEC is laughing at us.”

Renee Plummer, a Republican activist in New Hampshire, said Trump “knows how to stir the pot, and people like that here.” Voters in her state, she added, will be watching “how he dresses, how he acts at the fair and the local coffee shop. We have our criteria, and we will put him through the ringer. But I think he will be able to transcend all that.”

Trump’s blunt style could help rally Republicans and frame the issues in a way that appeals to voters, some strategists said, much as former Vermont governor Howard Dean did for Democrats in 2004.

“Trump is a celebrity and a successful businessman who can shake up the race and speak plainly to voters,” Reed said. “Whatever happens in terms of the nomination, he will help frame the debate and define Obama as a failed president. That’s a good thing.”

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