It appears to be sinking in with top Republicans that the upcoming GOP debate, featuring star performer Donald Trump, could prove to be a full-blown disaster. Politico has this amusing report:

Trump’s presence at center stage — his reward if he maintains his lead in the polls — is likely to transform the first Republican debate into a major media event, bringing big ratings to Fox News, the debate sponsor. By the same token, however, it will likely turn the traditionally policy-focused event into a pageant of personality, which is a potential nightmare for other candidates.
“I think you have to assume he’ll be loud and aggressive and do everything he can to stay on offense,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who gave the most commanding debate performances of the 2012 primary cycle, told POLITICO. “Trump is very smart, he has lots of TV experience and is absolutely uninhibited.”
Considered almost unthinkable just five weeks ago, Trump’s appearance at center stage is now the most inconvenient of truths for the would-be Republican front-runners. From Milwaukee to Miami, campaign aides are already wrestling with the Trump factor — strategizing on how to engage with him (if at all) and how to stave off his attacks.

The Hill adds this amusing tidbit:

Republican insiders are reconciling themselves to the idea that Donald Trump won’t be exiting the stage anytime soon — and their main concern now is limiting his damage to their party…it looks virtually certain that he will be included in the first major televised debate, hosted by Fox News on Aug. 6.

For all the handwringing among Republicans, I think it’s very possible that Trump-palooza might not actually end up mattering that much, if at all, over the long term (provided he doesn’t run as a third-party candidate). On immigration in particular, it’s my view that the GOP’s real problem isn’t Trump, it’s the actual substantive differences between the parties on the issue.

[Column: Donald Trump and the anger of conservatives]

But the possibility of Trump hijacking the debates raises some interesting short-term questions. Politico’s report notes that the GOP candidates are privately gaming out how, or whether, to confront him directly. Some Republicans expect that Jeb Bush may use the debate to stage a dramatic confrontation with him. Bush — perhaps more so than any other GOP candidate — does appear to take seriously the idea that the GOP needs to broaden its demographic appeal beyond core constituencies, and also seems to think it’s possible to do that without compromising his chances of winning the GOP primaries. If so, Bush has a real opportunity to put his theory to the test at the debate.

And that raises another question. Matt Lewis argues provocatively that many conservative opinion-makers, such as Rush Limbaugh, are refusing to use their influence to smother Trump’s momentum. Instead, Lewis argues, they are “cozying up to the Donald to leech off his popularity with some of the base” and “boost their ratings,” and in the process, they are letting down the Republican Party. If so, it’ll be particularly interesting to see how these opinion-makers react if, say, Jeb Bush calls out Trump’s ugliness.

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* CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICANS THINK U.S. ECONOMY IS FAIR: A new Washington Post poll asks:

Do you think the U.S. economic system (generally favors the wealthy) or (is fair to most Americans)?

Sixty eight percent of Americans say the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy. Even Republicans say the same by 51-41. But conservative Republicans say by 46-44 that it is fair to most Americans.

* AMERICANS SUPPORT RECENT COURT DECISIONS: The Post poll also finds that Americans support the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage by 52-44, and narrowly support the ruling upholding Obamacare subsidies by 45-42.

But in both cases, Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose the decisions — another sign that GOP resistance to gay marriage and Obamacare may have to continue.

* CLINTON’S NEGATIVES SOARING IN SWING STATES, POLL SAYS: A new Quinnipiac poll finds Hillary Clinton trailing three leading GOP contenders — Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio — in Virginia, Iowa, and Colorado, in some cases by sizable margins.

Horse race numbers this early don’t mean much. But Team Clinton might pay close attention to the fact that sizable majorities in all three states say she’s not honest and trustworthy and doesn’t care about their needs and problems.

* OBAMA TO RAMP UP PRESSURE OVER EX-IM BANK: Today President Obama will hold an event with small business people at the White House that is designed to pressure Congress to re-authorize the Export Import Bank, which supports loans to back up foreign purchases of U.S. products.

Mitch McConnell may attach Ex-Im reauthorization to a highway bill, but conservative groups are balking, on the grounds that Ex-Im is “corporate welfare. Obama’s push could exacerbate divisions between Tea Partyers and the business-friendly pragmatic Republicans.

* POLLING IS MIXED ON IRAN DEAL: Yesterday’s Pew poll found a plurality of Americans disapprove of the agreement with Iran. But this week’s Post/ABC poll found a majority supports it, while remaining skeptical it will work. What gives?

It looks as if it’s all in the questioning. A recent YouGov poll found a plurality backs the deal, and YouGov’s William Jordan points out that the two polls finding support tried to describe the agreement to respondents, while the Pew poll didn’t.

* AND POPE FRANCIS’ RATINGS PLUMMET AMONG CONSERVATIVES: Gallup finds that Pope Francis is viewed favorably by 59 percent of Americans, a drop since 2014. Note this:

Pope Francis’ drop in favorability is even starker among Americans who identify as conservative — 45% of whom view him favorably, down sharply from 72% last year. This decline may be attributable to the pope’s denouncing of “the idolatry of money” and attributing climate change partially to human activity, along with his passionate focus on income inequality — all issues that are at odds with many conservatives’ beliefs.

His ratings have dropped among liberals, too, for other reasons, but not by nearly as much.