LAS VEGAS — Donald Trump wants to make the presidential election race about competence, something he says his successful business record shows he has in abundance.
He told some 2,500 cheering activists at the annual FreedomFest in Las Vegas this weekend that competence is exactly what is not possessed by President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, fellow Republican hopeful Jeb Bush and just about every politician in Washington.
Mr. Trump has won notoriety with his candid, undiplomatic and, some say, outlandish accusations about the Mexican government unloading its criminal element on the U.S. and with his build-a-wall immigration policy. But those issues are subsets of a broader competence theme for which he appears to think the electorate is ready.
He may be right, at least for the libertarian-friendly activists who jammed the Planet Hollywood ballroom to see him Saturday. Every time the real estate developer, who claims a net worth of $9 billion, accused Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bush of rampant incompetence, the crowd roared with approval.
“Who would you rather have negotiating with China — Trump negotiating with China or Bush negotiating with China?” he asked the crowd.
The audience response was “Trump” all the way. He surprised some in the audience with his appeal to them as a presidential wannabe rather than just an entertaining distraction.
“Trump wasn’t high on my list of favorite Republicans, but he moved up quite a bit based on this speech” said Joe O’Halloran, 63, of Nipomo, California. “He was honest — said things that are true — and is competent and not beholden to anybody.
“I had favored Marco Rubio prior to this meeting,” said Mr. O’Halloran, who added that he was not a libertarian but was “growing more libertarian.”
The annual four-day FreedomFest audience was likely to be at least as politically knowledgeable and sophisticated as any other audience Mr. Trump will face in the months ahead, political operatives at the conference said.
Mr. Trump’s growing popularity with Republican voters has startled many political observers. He now leads Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor, in some polls. That has some political professionals wondering whether “The Donald” may be more than a unique, tell-it-like-it-is character on a Republican presidential nomination stage otherwise filled with experienced politicians who rarely, if ever, put things so straightforwardly.
Indeed, the mogul is beginning to remind some of a political maverick from another era: H. Ross Perot.
“Houston, we have a Perot ‘92 on steroids,” Paul Erickson said after Mr. Trump’s speech.
Mr. Erickson predicts that if Mr. Trump stays in the race, he will change the message on a number of issues, particularly immigration.
“People have a deep apprehension about unfettered immigration,” said Mr. Erickson, who has worked with Republican primary hopefuls including Pat Buchanan and Mitt Romney. “No one has ever found a way to discuss criminality associated with some illegal immigrants without impugning the character of all immigrants, legal and illegal.”
Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on illegal immigration could make it more politically acceptable to link that voter apprehension to criminality, giving other candidates courage to draw those links.
Mr. Trump may be more formidable by indicating that he is not wedded to running as a Republican. If the party gives him a hard time — as it appears it is beginning to do — he could run as a third-party or independent candidate.