Four years ago, nobody cared what Donald Trump thought about the Republican presidential candidates.

This year, nearly every major candidate has made a pilgrimage to New York City to meet with The Donald. And some of the candidates have even committed to attend a Dec. 27 Iowa debate he is moderating.

Why is Donald Trump — a Democrat for most of the last decade — now a Republican king-maker (of sorts)?

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Well, because in politics the best offense is sometimes a good defense. And being on Trump’s good side is just much easier and (politically) safer than being on his bad side.

Trump is a mixed blessing — at best — politically.

New polling from NBC News and Marist College shows more voters in Iowa and New Hampshire would be turned off by a Trump endorsement than positively influenced by one. In both states, only about 20 percent of Republicans said they would be more likely to cast ballots for a candidate who had Trump’s blessing while more than one-third said a Trump endorsement would make them less likely to support his chosen candidate.

Those numbers have some GOP strategists wondering how Trump has made himself into such a pivotal figure in the GOP presidential race.

“Why would a movement birthed by William F. Buckley allow itself to be hijacked by the likes of Donald Trump?” asked GOP consultant John Weaver, a strategist to former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign. “In their wildest dreams, [Obama adviser David] Axelrod and company couldn’t come up with this scenario.”

(Huntsman has been outspoken in his unwillingness to meet with Trump and has denounced his opponents who have.)

GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who is unaligned in the Republican race said he was “confounded” by the attention the GOP candidates have paid to Trump. “I have no idea why they kowtow,” he added.

Others say it comes down to a pretty simple equation: Trump has a big platform and likes to use it. And, because he so often uses incendiary rhetoric when he opens his mouth, the media cover what he has to say and amplify it.

So while Trump may not be someone that Republicans look to for an endorsement, he is someone that could create a hassle for anybody who is on his bad side.

Take Trump’s appearance on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” with Chuck Todd this morning (video above). Trump got seven minutes on the show even though he was on the phone, and used that time to hammer Huntsman, who has passed on participating in the Trump debate, as dishonest.

Huntman’s team has tried to cast its refusal to participate in the Trump debate as a principled stand against the sideshow that is Donald Trump. In response, Trump said Monday morning that Huntsman’s people have tried to set up a meeting with him.“I’m sure he’ll tell the truth about that because he’s a Mormon,” Trump said. Um, ok.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul is the only other candidate to incur Trump’s wrath by turning down the debate, and like Huntsman, he appeared to be trying to get mileage out of it by criticizing the whole ordeal on Sunday.

“I didn’t know he had the ability to lay on hands and anoint people,” Paul said on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Candy Crowley.

But the calculus for whether or not to participate in the Trump debate is more complicated than deciding to sit down with The Donald, particularly when it comes to candidates like Mitt Romney.

Submitting to his questions in a public forum — questions that could include stuff that touches on Trump’s birther campaign — could head down a dangerous (and dangerously off-message) path for top-tier candidates just days away from the Iowa caucuses.

Put another way: appeasing Trump so far has been relatively easy with most candidates willing to take a short-term press hit for the long term gain of having Trump either favorably or neutrally inclined toward them.

All of a sudden, playing ball with The Donald is also a risky proposition for GOP presidential candidates, and how they massage his ego in the days and weeks ahead should show you just how powerful they have allowed this unlikely king-maker to become.


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