- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Donald Trump has not only survived but thrived in nearly two months as the must-watch presidential candidate by easily surmounting controversies and high-profile clashes with fellow Republicans and making an ascent in the polls that has confounded pundits, pollsters and political opponents alike.

The billionaire businessman has topped every survey taken since early July — a span of a dozen polls — and has surged as the top second-choice option for many Republican voters, suggesting his support runs deeper than just a core of dissatisfied Republicans eager to tweak their party establishment.

“He’s a phenomenon, from a polling and a political standpoint,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, whose survey this week showed Mr. Trump with a commanding 26 percent support, more than twice that of his closest rivals, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 12 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 11 percent.

Mr. Trump has overcome hiccups that many pundits thought would doom him, including a bizarre back-and-forth with Sen. John McCain in which Mr. Trump questioned the former Vietnam prisoner of war’s heroism, and then gave out the cellphone number of Mr. McCain’s pal, Sen. Lindsey Graham, on national television.

Two weeks later, his support is stronger than ever, and he will be the chief target as he takes the stage Thursday for the first debate of the primary season.

“There’s no doubt his numbers have gone up, and his numbers have gone up in spite of what some consider huge gaffes. And that might speak to staying power,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

Monmouth’s poll showed that Mr. Trump’s favorable rating leaped more than 30 points from early June, before he officially announced his campaign. That rise is all the more stunning because as a real estate mogul with fingers in everything from golf courses to neckties, he was already well known to the public.

But his transition from pitchman to politician, which pundits panned, has been wildly successful. Voters who just a few months ago rejected the idea of a Trump bid are now warming to it.

A Fox News poll released Monday found just a third of Republican primary voters could never see themselves voting for Mr. Trump — down dramatically from the nearly 60 percent who dismissed his candidacy in May and June.

Some of the punditry is also having a change of heart. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza penned a column Tuesday titled “Boy, was I wrong about Donald Trump,” explaining how he failed to foresee Mr. Trump’s rise.

The candidate himself has plowed ahead, doling out interviews, dropping one-liners and generally sucking up all the oxygen in the race.

“People are tired. They’re sick and tired of incompetent politicians,” Mr. Trump told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program Tuesday. “When I get up and speak, I get the biggest crowds. We get standing ovations. And all we do is talk about how great our country could be. And I mean it. Our country has such potential. But if it continues to go this path, it’s going to be almost impossible to bring it back. It’s really far down the line.”

Not all is rosy for Mr. Trump.

His name recognition is universal, so he cannot introduce himself to new voters in the way that some lesser-known candidates can. But he has shown he can swing opinions about himself like no other politician in the field.

More troubling for him are high levels of distrust — he regularly tops the list of candidates Republican voters say they could never support — and his poor showing in head-to-head matchups with Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Top Democrats still believe Mr. Trump is a dirty word in politics. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday said “the same factors fueling the rise of Donald Trump” were sending the Republican Party further to the right, preventing progress in Congress.

“The far right wing is controlling the Republican Party, from Trump on down — or on up, however you want to say it,” he said.

Other Republican candidates are hoping to outlast Mr. Trump.

“This is a long, long campaign,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry told Fox Business host Neil Cavuto on Tuesday.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told MSNBC that if he is on the stage with Mr. Trump in Thursday’s debate, he will try to carve out his own space by focusing on his own plans.

“The right thing to do is to talk about your ideas and what you want to put forward as a plan for America’s future, and those are the things you need to talk about,” he said. “I think focusing on any one particular candidate doesn’t make any sense.”

Mr. Murray said attacking Mr. Trump also could prove tricky for the other candidates because of the breadth of support for the businessman, who leads among men and women, older and younger Republican voters, and conservative and moderate voters. Going after Mr. Trump could end up angering constituencies that candidates don’t want to lose.

“They don’t know who his supporters are, so they don’t know who they’re going to tick off,” Mr. Murray said.

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