Opinion writer

Me TOUGH! Me STRONG! (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

THE MORNING PLUM:

The horrific scenes out of Belgium, where at least 26 people were killed in a pair of terror attacks, have already sparked a debate over whether this sort of thing will help Donald Trump get elected president. And if Trump does win the GOP nomination, such fears will probably grow. But I’m going to suggest that there is no reason to simply assume up front that this will be the case. In fact, the opposite might prove true.

Brussels is dealing with the aftermath of a series of deadly explosions. Here's what you need to know about the terror attacks. (Claritza Jimenez,Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

On NBC News this morning, Trump already signaled that he thinks terror attacks help him politically. Employing his characteristic subtlety and modesty, Trump said this:

“This is a subject that is very dear and near to my heart, because I’ve been talking about it much more than anybody else. And it’s probably why I’m number one in the polls. Because of the fact that I say we have to have strong borders. We have to be very vigilant and careful who we allow into our country.”

Asked what he would do as president about terror threats, Trump said: “I would be very, very tough on the borders, and I would not be not allowing certain people to come into this country without absolute perfect documentation.” He added that the authorities should be allowed to “do whatever they have to do,” including waterboarding, to the recently apprehended lead suspect in the Paris attacks. Trump concluded:

“I would say to the American people that we are going to be very strong, we are going to be very vigilant, and we are going to be very tough. And we’re not going to allow this to happen to our country. And if it does happen, we’re going to find the people that did it, and they are going to suffer greatly.”

In other words, Trump seized on the attacks to buttress his narrative: He’ll be endlessly tough and strong, especially on the border; and he’ll be willing to inflict great suffering on our enemies, unlike our current leaders, who are too stupid, too politically correct, and too weak to defend our country.

Some journalists think this might work. One editor tweeted this morning: “America may be one major terrorist attack away from Donald Trump as president.” Another prominent journalist added: “Keeps me up at night.”

These fears are understandable. But they rest on the assumption that the general election audience will acquiesce to Trump’s simplistic, blustery framing of foreign policy and national security issues. While it’s true that Trump’s support among GOP primary voters did grow after previous terror attacks, my suspicion is that general election voters will be less inclined to buy into the overall story Trump is telling.

For one thing, the general election audience may be more receptive to the argument that Trump’s cartoonishly simple-minded vows of “strength,” if anything, render him unfit for the presidency in a complicated and dangerous world, rather than the other way around. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that only 30 percent of Americans think Trump is “ready to be commander in chief,” while 60 percent say he isn’t. For Hillary Clinton, those numbers are 46-45.

What’s more, in a general election, Democrats will be freer to make a much tougher case against Trump than his Republican rivals have done. Republican primary voters favor mass deportations and a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country — even as majorities of Americans overall oppose those things. Which is to say that Republican voters accept Trump’s account of the causes of American weakness and what should be done to make us “great again,” and overall Americans don’t. That frees up Democrats to be much more direct in, well, making the case that on these issues, Trump has no frigging idea what he’s talking about.

Trump has so far functioned in a kind of protected environment, where the limitations on what the GOP candidates can say to GOP primary voters have precluded a very aggressive unmasking of Trump’s ignorance and demagoguery. In the general election, Trump is going to run into a buzz saw of reality, where no such protections exist. In that environment, majorities may not reflexively thrill to simplistic displays of “strength,” and may actually see a lack of knowledge and experience, and a tenuous grasp of complexity and nuance, as negatives. Also, factors such as negative partisanship and the declining importance of swing voters make it less likely that Trump could seriously cut into the Dem coalition, no matter how tough and strong he is.

Could another terror attack frighten Americans to the degree that the story he’s telling begins to have appeal to them? Anything is possible, of course, and one should not dismiss the possibility that voters will view the Democratic Party as weaker on national security than the GOP, and that this could have some kind of impact. But if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, she might be well suited to achieve separation from any such dynamic. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Clinton is more trusted than Trump to handle terrorism by 50-42.

Indeed, Clinton is obviously already preparing to cast herself as tougher on national security than even Trump is (if such a thing is possible). If anything, the terror threat might end up encouraging Clinton to continue to try to get to Trump’s right on these issues (while mercilessly unmasking him as too lacking in experience and knowledge to be commander in chief), as she did in her speech yesterday about Israel. That will be very unsightly to watch, and I really hope Dems don’t allow unfounded political panic to dictate their foreign policy positions. It’s also worth noting that Trump might be able to use Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War to attack her from the left, with some success. So merely getting to “the right” of Trump is not an answer. (See our next item for more on this.)

But one imagines Clinton’s team has already been thinking about how to finesse all of this. And the bottom line is that Trump may prove to be the one who is more vulnerable on these issues before the general election audience, all of his self-ascribed “strength” notwithstanding.

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* TRUMP FLIPS THE SCRIPT ON FOREIGN POLICY: An interesting observation from James Hohmann:

In a striking role reversal, the Democratic nominee for president in 2016 is likely to be more of an internationalist, more supportive of free trade and, at least on paper, more hawkish than her Republican opponent….After 13 years of seeming quagmire in the Middle East, the billionaire businessman is promising to scale back the U.S. footprint overseas. And it is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who must persuade the American people on the importance of U.S. leadership in the world, to both keep us secure and ensure our prosperity.

This could loom large, but Trump’s obvious lack of knowledge and grasp of nuance could make it easier for Clinton to win this argument with the public.

* TRUMP-MENTUM RAGES ACROSS THE LAND: A new New York Times/CBS News poll finds that Donald Trump has his largest lead yet among GOP primary voters nationwide: Trump has 46 percent; Cruz has 26 percent; and Kasich has 20 percent.

Why, it’s almost as if Trump doesn’t have any ceiling among Republican voters, after all.

* REPUBLICANS DON’T WANT A CONTESTED CONVENTION: More key findings from the new NYT/CBS poll:

Fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters expect Mr. Trump to be their party’s nominee….two-thirds of Republican voters said it would bad for the party if the nominee were chosen at a contested Republican convention in July.

It’s unlikely that this will dissuade Republicans from trying to deny Trump the nomination, but it speaks to the potential divisions among Republicans that may be unleashed.

* THE FINAL FORECASTS, GOP SIDE: FiveThirtyEight’s final forecasts give Donald Trump a 92 percent chance of winning today’s Arizona primary, and Ted Cruz a 98 percent chance of winning the Utah caucuses. FiveThirtyEight projects Trump will pick up another 62 delegates tonight.

The big long term question remains: Will Trump win a majority of the delegates outright, and with it, the nomination, avoiding a contested convention? FiveThirtyEight projects that it will be very close. In a few weeks we’ll get contests in delegate-rich states like New York and California, and how well Trump performs in them will help settle that question.

* WHAT TO WATCH FOR TONIGHT ON GOP SIDE: Jonathan Martin and Nate Cohn explain that the most important question of the night is whether Ted Cruz wins more than 50 percent in Utah:

If so, he would take all 40 of the state’s delegates and mitigate Donald J. Trump’s expected victory in Arizona, a state that allocates all 58 of its delegates to the top vote-getter. Should Mr. Cruz fall short, Utah’s delegates will be distributed to the three candidates on a proportional basis…Such a split decision would make the math more difficult for Republicans trying to prevent Mr. Trump from securing the nomination before the party’s convention in July.

Also, John Kasich has been competing aggressively in the state against Cruz, meaning he could help deny Cruz that 50 percent, thus making a Trump nomination more likely.

 * MEET TRUMP’S FOREIGN POLICY TEAM: Missy Ryan introduces us to all five of them. And Politico reports that a lot of GOP foreign policy hands are deeply mystified by Trump’s choices.

In a general election, these types of rollouts will receive a lot more scrutiny than they are currently getting.

* WHY REPUBLICANS WORRY ABOUT TRUMP NOMINATION: The Hill’s Niall Stanage interviews Republican and Dem operatives and finds agreement that if Trump is the GOP nominee, it could actually end up driving up turnout on the Democratic side, too:

“Honestly, I do think that if Donald Trump is on the ticket, we probably will see the highest turnout we’ve ever seen in a presidential election,” said Republican strategist Dan Judy of North Star Opinion Research. “A lot of people will turn out for him who have never voted. But as many, if not more, will turn out to vote against him.”

This is the GOP’s demographic trap: Whatever Trump says and does to drive up turnout among those vaunted working class white voters we keep hearing about may also drive up nonwhite turnout, too.