Donald Trump finished second in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll testing the 2012 Republican presidential field. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand

Trump’s 17 percent tied with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and put him well in front of other well- known GOP contenders like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

And, among those who identify themselves as tea party supporters, Trump is actually in the lead with 20 percent, followed by Romney at 17 percent and Huckabee at 14 percent.

What gives? How can someone who as recently as 2000 was preparing to run for president under the Reform Party banner and in 2007 touted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as “the best” suddenly be the hottest commodity in Republican politics?

We put that question to a handful of smart political strategists. Their answers largely fell into a few categories.

1) Name Identification, pure and simple: People recognize Trump’s name and, in a field filled with political unknowns, they gravitate to a name with which they’re familiar. “The voters know Trump; they do not know many of the others,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who along with Republican Bill McInturff conducts the NBC/WSJ survey. “For the tea party followers — gone is Palin, so Trump is their current flavor du jour.”

2) Confrontation sells: Since emerging on the 2012 scene, Trump has been all bravado and bluster. His main line of attack,oddly, has been over the already-settled debate over whether President Obama is a U.S. citizen. But GOP operatives argue the merit of the argument may matter less to primary voters than the simple fact Trump is displaying a willingness to take the fight to Obama. “What voters are saying is that they like the no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach that Trump seems to take,” said one GOP consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly.

3) Business credentials: What Trump is, in the eyes of most voters, is a successful businessman. “People want to be like him,” said one party strategist. Carl Forti, a partner at the Republican-aligned Blackrock Group, put it another way. “People want economic hope,” Forti said. “They want a job...Trump’s a businessman, so in theory, he knows what he’s doing.”

Whatever the reason for Trump’s surprisingly strong showing, there is a near-unanimous belief that he would peak on his first day in the race.

“It is a huge mistake for people to confuse fame with electability or seriousness of candidacy,” said Republican strategist Alex Vogel. “If fame was all it took, Simon Cowell could pick presidents and not just rock stars.”

Still, almost no one thought Trump would ever be as strong as the NBC/WSJ survey portrays him. His ability to start near the top of a poll — particularly among tea party supporters — suggests significant volatility in what was already considered a wide-open field.

The numbers will almost certainly embolden Trump to increase his rhetorical antics (if that’s possible), drawing attention away from candidates who are serious about running for the GOP nod and have a real chance at winning it.

Super PAC takes aim at Kaine: A super PAC being run by former senator George Allen’s (R-Va.) old campaign manager is taking aim at former DNC chairman Tim Kaine in the Virginia Senate race.

Jason Miller, a Republican consultant who runs the Concerned Taxpayers of America PAC, is set to announce that the super PAC will be training its focus on Kaine, who launched his campaign Tuesday.

Miller will also announce that the PAC will be adding a nonprofit 501(c)(4) arm. Adding the nonprofit entity allows it to do issue advocacy ads without disclosing donors.

“Being President Obama’s ‘Best Friend Forever’ certainly got Tim Kaine invited to all the cool White House parties, but the price tag for the big-spending agenda he’s championed as chairman of the DNC is unconscionable,” Miller said.

The PAC, which focuses on fiscal issues and the national debt, spent about $1 million in the 2010 election, mostly against Reps. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). Kratovil lost.

Walker: Don’t call it a referendum: The governor whose controversial policies fueled two contentious state elections Tuesday says no one should read too much into the results.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race ended Wednesday afternoon with JoAnne Kloppenburg holding a 204-vote lead over David Prosser, the more conservative justice who beat her by 30 points in a non-partisan primary just a few months ago. A recount is expected.

Meanwhile, Democrat Chris Abele beat Republican state Rep. Jeff Stone for Milwaukee County executive — the office Gov. Scott Walker (R) held before becoming governor.

But Walker said the results don’t say anything about his policies. He chalked up both results to turnout among liberals inMadison and Milwaukee.

“You have two very different worlds in this state,” the governor said. “You have a world driven by Madison and a world driven by everybody else out across the state of Wisconsin.”

Democrats, of course, disagree. And on a conference call to discuss the results, state Sen. Chris Larson (D) had a warning for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is pushing his own dramatic reforms on the federal level: “I think he’s gonna find, if other Republicans find themselves thinking this is a good idea, I think that it’s going to be the end of a lot of their political careers.”

Slim majority of Republicans favor shutdown: The general public is hoping for a compromise budget from Congress, but a slim majority of Republicans say they would rather have a shutdown than a compromise, according to a new Gallup poll.

Just 33 percent of all adults say their side should hold out for the budget it wants, even if it means a shutdown. Among Republicans, that number rises to 51 percent, with 44 percent favoring a compromise.

The poll expands on the dilemma Republicans face as the potential shutdown nears: meet somewhere in the middle or hold their ground to assuage tea party supporters.

No polling is perfect — it’s hard to define what “compromise” or “holding your ground” mean in a poll — but it does show a significant divide in the GOP.

Obama lays the death hug on Gingrich: Obama continues to wade into the GOP presidential primary in an indirect way.

The latest example came Wednesday, when Obama reminded us all that Gingrich has worked with liberal Al Sharpton on education issues.

“Newt said he and Al Sharpton were a bit of an odd couple,” Obama said, adding: “I don’t think there’s anything odd with the two of them coming together on the issue of education.”

Obama and his team have conveniently reminded people of Jon Huntsman’s service as his ambassador to China and have praised Mitt Romney’s health care bill from when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, which has been compared to Obama’s.

None of those reminders are likely to help the Republicans in a presidential primary.


Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a potential redistricting target who has also drawn a challenge from state Rep. Marty Knollenberg (R), announced this morning that he raised a strong $434,000 in the first quarter.

Former representative Mike McMahon (D-N.Y.) has joined a law firm. There has been some talk that he might seek a rematch with freshman Rep. Mike Grimm (R).

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who got some pushback for suggesting Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) might be overwhelmed by serving both in Congress and as Democratic National Committee chairwoman, is in damage-control mode.

Former FBI agent Michael Clark (R) has joined the race for Rep. Chris Murphy’s (D-Conn.) seat. Murphy is running for Senate, and the primaries on both sides of the aisle are crowding.

Democrats have fought hard to make the Koch brothers the bogeymen, but at least one Democrat isn’t buying into it: Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.).

An abstinence group is defending Bristol Palin for the $262,500 she earned pitching its cause.

The law firm tentatively chosen to advise California’s new citizens redistricting commission has given lots of money to Democrats, raising questions about its neutrality.


The GOP’s Dukakis problem” — Jonathan Chait, New York Times

Gung-Ho for Big Cuts in Spending, Less Fond of the Ones That Hurt Back Home”-- Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times