Republicans are worried that Donald Trump will turn their first presidential debate into an embarrassing circus for the party and top candidates.
The celebrity real estate mogul's Gatsby-esque entrance into the race on Tuesday has unleashed a torrent of anti-Trump tirades from influential Republicans, who are openly fretting that the bombastic, saber-rattling New Yorker with broad name recognition is in position to qualify for one of the 10 coveted debate slots under the rules set by Fox News.
The National Review called Trump a "ridiculous buffoon" and "an ass of exceptionally intense asininity." Republican strategist Rick Wilson dubbed him "the clown prince of the 2016 cycle." The conservative group Club For Growth said he "should not be taken seriously" and urged that he be excluded from the debates.
If Fox were making the cut today, Trump appears to be in.
The RealClearPolitics average of five recent national polls puts him in ninth place with 3.6 percent, just ahead of former Texas Governor Rick Perry — and 1.8 points ahead of John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, meaning the chief executive of the state where the debate is being held would not have a place on the stage. Candidates at the bottom of the list have seven weeks to displace Trump, but that's a tall order, particularly if he gets a boost after announcing his presidential bid Tuesday and hitting the Sunday show circuit with a scheduled appearance on CNN's State of the Union.
One of the candidates likely to be left out, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, appeared to be anticipating the Trump phenomenon days before the New Yorker jumped into the race. Talking to reporters Saturday at a Utah gathering of Republican candidates and donors sponsored by Mitt Romney, Graham complained that the rules for determining participants in the first debate "reward people who have run before and celebrity."
"I think there's going to be a big pushback against this," he predicted.
Reality TV show
At least one of Trump's critics, Wilson, already is resigned to the prospect. "[I]t’s time for Republican candidates for President to face a simple fact; Trump will be on that stage. He’ll make the cut, based on name ID alone," wrote party strategist Rick Wilson in a post for the conservative website IJReview. Wilson advised other candidates on state to refuse to engage. "Don’t agree with him. Don’t disagree with him. Don’t argue with him."
The very thought is a nightmare scenario for the Republican establishment, which risks having its presidential field look more like an unwieldy circus of a reality TV show than the self-styled embarrassment of riches.
"This is the greatest gift to the media and the Democrats that could imagine," Wilson wrote.
The Democratic National Committee was so gleeful about Trump jumping into the race that it issued a statement holding him up a "major candidate" who brings "much-needed seriousness" to the Republican field. The Republican National Committee welcomed him to the race in a tweet.
Trump's announcement speech did nothing to assuage concerns about what his presence might mean for some of the party's top contenders, such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
"You looked at Bush, it took him five days to answer the question on Iraq. He couldn’t answer the question. He didn’t know. I said, 'Is he intelligent?' Then I looked at Rubio. He was unable to answer the question, is Iraq a good thing or bad thing," Trump said. "How are these people gonna lead us? ...They don’t have a clue. They can’t lead us. They can’t. They can’t even answer simple questions. It was terrible."
But whether Trump manages to get the free media promised by the debate, he's unlikely to lack for a platform. The self-described billionaire promises to fund his own campaign. "I don’t care," he boasted. "I'm really rich."
—Kendall Breitman contributed reporting.