As Donald Trump Rises, Republicans Do Outlandish Things to Get Attention

Is the billionaire influencing the behavior of his fellow GOP candidates?

Republican presidential hopeful businessman Donald Trump speaks to guests gathered in an overflow room at a rally on July 25, 2015 in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Within the last week, Rand Paul has obliterated the "tax code" with a chainsaw, Lindsey Graham has destroyed his phone with a baseball bat, and Mike Huckabee has compared the Iran nuclear deal to the Holocaust.

Is Donald Trump to blame?

The real estate mogul's meteoric rise to the top of Republican primary polls, combined with his knack for dominating the media spotlight, is compelling his rivals to saying and doing unusual things to get their message out, some strategists believe. Many Republicans are already struggling to gain traction in the crowded field of 16 major candidates, and the urgency is growing as the first debate approaches in 10 days. Only the top 10 candidates in the polls will appear on the stage, according to rules set by Fox News.

"Republican candidates are trying to escape the black hole of media coverage that Donald Trump has created over the past several weeks. Some of their tactics would be considered extreme if they weren’t simply trying to punch through," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who is not affiliated with a presidential candidate.

On Tuesday, Paul released a video of himself taking a chainsaw to "all 70,000 pages" of the tax code amidst an electric guitar rendition of the Star Spangled Banner—a rallying cry for conservatives who want a flat tax, which the Kentucky senator supports at a rate of 14.5 percent for individual and business income. Time described it as an attempt to "cut through the frenzy over Donald Trump." CNN reporter Chris Moody also speculated as much.

Paul was asked on Boston Herald Radio last week about Republican candidates having to "do something crazy just to wrestle the spotlight away from Donald Trump." He responded sardonically, "Yeah, I'm drawing the line at self-immolation. None of us are gonna set ourselves on fire." Of the many recent videos posted on Paul's website, none are anywhere near as, well, fiery as this one.

Not to be outdone, Graham on Wednesday produced a video of him destroying his cell phone—by beating it with a baseball bat, burning it, chopping it in a blender and throwing it off a roof. The reason? Trump had just given out the South Carolina senator's number in a public speech. The stunt worked: the video, released by the conservative website IJReview, has been watched nearly 2 million times on YouTube as of this writing.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has been feuding with Trump, gave a searing speech Wednesday in Washington calling the candidacy of the New York businessman a "cancer on conservatism"—"a movement of mean-spirited politics that will send the Republican Party to the same place it sent the Whig Party in 1854: the graveyard." Like many attacks involving Trump, the speech received substantial attention.

On Sunday, Huckabee tried to top them all by using a Holocaust reference to bash an international agreement backed by President Barack Obama aimed at preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon. "It is so naive that he would trust the Iranians," the former governor of Arkansas told the conservative website Breitbart. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven." Obama labeled his comment "ridiculous" and speculated that "maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines." Huckabee quickly doubled down and tried to fundraise off the president's response.

As Business Insider has suggested, these moves could be an attempt to seize the media spotlight from the brash, self-aggrandizing Trump, who has pulled no punches against anybody that crosses him in his race to the lead in recent Republican polls.

That said, not all of these actions are out of character; Huckabee, for instance, has deployed fiery rhetoric on issues like same-sex marriage as he seeks to win back the affections of Iowa Republican caucus-goers who picked him for the nomination in 2008. But if anything the upcoming debate raises the urgency for finding campaign oxygen in the media ecosystem.

The problem is dire for Graham, who is placing last according to the RealClearPolitics average of recent surveys and needs a major burst of support to qualify for the August 6 debate. Paul is currently eighth and Perry is 11th; both are fighting for a spot on the stage.

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Read more about the wide Republican field angling for the 10 available spots in the upcoming debates.

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