It's not just about Donald Trump's celebrity or Barack Obama's birth certificate. It's certainly not about his hair.
Despite the jokes, ridicule and eye-rolling The Donald provokes, polls consistently show him narrowly trailing Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump has tapped into something.
"People like the confidence and brazen attitude,'' said Javier Manjarres, a conservative blogger in Fort Lauderdale who saw Trump at a tea party rally in Boca Raton on Saturday. "They know he's got a lot of issues, but most people are desperate for change. They'd rather compromise with him instead of someone who's more PC like a Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney."
For a considerable segment of the Republican base, especially those who closely associate themselves with the conservative tea party movement, Trump's pugnacious and outrageous attacks on Obama are a refreshing departure from most bland and cautious mainstream politicians. Certainly, the bombast gets him loads of media exposure while other contenders are barely visible.
Trump the outsider is filling a vacuum in a field of potential Republican candidates — including former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich — that generates little grass roots enthusiasm. It's why many activists are still pining for a figure like Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run, and why even people skeptical of Trump are giving him a look.
"I'm not sure if Trump's in it for publicity or not, but I do like the fact that he's willing to challenge and stand up for beliefs he feels strongly about," said Karen Jaroch, a conservative activist and founder of the Tampa 912 Project, who had hoped South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint would run. "Too often we're seeing the Republicans bow down and cave in."
A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday found 39 percent of Republicans knew Trump was a possible candidate, more than all the other possible candidates combined.
"The birther issue definitely isn't part of our core values, but what Donald Trump is doing is questioning things and saying, 'Why do we have to just accept everything? Who really is Barack Obama?,' '' said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party that hosted the rally with Trump last weekend. "He definitely adds some excitement to the race. Finally, someone is standing up and saying we have some serious problems here in America, and if we don't do something soon there won't be an America."
In Florida last weekend, Trump veered from calling for America to launch a trade war with China to saying America should seize the oil in Iraq and Libya to suggesting that radical former Weather Underground bomber William Ayers wrote Obama's first book.
"The man that wrote the second book didn't write the first book. The first book was written by Ernest Hemingway plus. The second book was written by a high school graduate. The difference was like chicken salad and chicken s---," he said.
The crowd loved it.
Few analysts think Trump has a real shot at winning the GOP nomination, but if he does run he could have a big impact on the race — at least its tone. The reality TV star would be a force in debates and compel the other candidates to respond to him.
But he also would face tougher questions about his business record, and his past support for abortion rights, Democratic candidates, tax increases and a single payer health care system.
"Our people are our greatest asset. We must take care of our own. We must have universal healthcare," Trump wrote in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve.
He has said he will announce his intentions by June on his hit show, The Celebrity Apprentice. The conventional wisdom is that he ultimately won't run.
"The real winner in this stunt is NBC. He's getting all this face time for saying things that are a little extreme and at the same time it's impossible to go on TV or radio without the person interviewing him mentioning his hit show on NBC, The Apprentice,'' said Joe Culotta, an Orlando-based Republican new media consultant, who thinks Trump's provocations damage the GOP with swing voters.
Republican strategist Roger Stone of Miami, a longtime lobbyist for Trump and chairman of his 2000 presidential exploratory committee, said the show helped turn Trump into a formidable potential candidate.
"NBC spends millions of dollars promoting an image of him in which he looks cool and decisive and strong. That's an image you're are not getting from Washington. All you get is vacillation,'' said Stone, noting that polls consistently show Trump performing best among middle-class, middle-income voters and worst among high-income voters.
Certainly the GOP establishment is horrified by Trump. Karl Rove called him "a joke." And columnist Charles Krauthammer went with "clown."
Trump doesn't need Wall Street and Washington elites to be a tough candidate, though.
"They're elitist and he's not. They think of him as nouveau riche," Stone said. "But he speaks the language of the streets."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]