- The Washington Times - Friday, December 9, 2011

Donald Trump’s stature within Republican ranks appears to be waning, after most of the party’s presidential hopefuls have shot down the billionaire developer’s invitation to take part in a “debate” moderated by “The Donald.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, became the latest to announce they will take a pass on the Dec. 27 Newsmax-sponsored debate, following in the footsteps of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, have said they plan to attend the event.

The announcements from the Perry and Bachmann camps coincide with a Rasmussen Reports poll released this week that found voters aren’t overly enthralled with the idea of having Mr. Trump involved in the GOP nomination race.

“A sizable number of voters think Republican presidential candidates are paying too much attention to Trump, and an overwhelming majority say his endorsement would hurt a candidate in their eyes or have no impact,” the survey of of 1,000 likely voters found. In all, 42 percent of the respondents said the GOP White House hopefuls have paid too much attention to the reality television star and New York real estate magnate.

Mr. Trump, who flirted with a presidential bid earlier this year, has been treated at times like a rock star by GOP activists, who enjoy his blunt attacks against President Obama and no-nonsense rhetorical style. He’s also been courted by the GOP presidential field, including the frontrunners, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney. Others, though, have pointed out he once supported universal health care, abortion and gay marriage, putting him at odds with powerful segments of the Republican Party.

Mr. Santorum is defending his decision to attend the debate, suggesting this week that some of his more reluctant GOP rivals are hypocrites.

“Many of my opponents jockeyed to be the first to fly up to New York and use Donald Trump for a photo op and no doubt try and secure an endorsement,” Mr. Santorum said. “But when Donald wants to moderate a debate — they refuse to attend. That’s what’s wrong with politics today — hypocrisy. At this critical time in our nation’s history, just weeks before Iowans cast this important vote, many of the other candidates want to hide behind TV ads and mail pieces. We plan to be there front and center in person to debate Newt directly, and if it’s just the two of us, we’re fine with it.”

The Paul campaign was the first to dismiss the debate invite from Mr. Trump, who angered Paul supporters earlier this year when he offered a blunt assessment of the congressman’s electoral hopes in a presidential race at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

Ron Paul, Mr. Trump said, “cannot get elected. Sorry.”

Jesse Benton, chairman of the Paul campaign, returned the favor last week, when he announced his boss would not be taking part in the event.

“The selection of a reality television personality to host a presidential debate that voters nationwide with be watching is beneath the office of the presidency and flies in the face of that office’s history and dignity,” Mr. Benton said. He added, “To be sure, Mr. Trump’s participation will contribute to an unwanted circus-like atmosphere.”