Donald Trump may be causing headaches for many Republican candidates, but some have figured out a way to harness the maverick billionaire businessman to their advantage.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has led the way by highlighting areas where he agrees with Mr. Trump and then using the Republican presidential front-runner to get more attention for himself — such as when Mr. Cruz invited Mr. Trump to a rally to oppose the Iran nuclear deal.
Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, called it a smart move. “None of you people would have covered it otherwise,” he told reporters at a forum this week hosted by National Review.
Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, is using insults to try to lure Mr. Trump into a one-on-one food fight, which the Louisiana governor hopes will raise his own profile as the press covers the brash Mr. Trump in yet another scuffle.
“You have to be able to do it all in a presidential campaign, push and articulate policy, to distinguish yourself from the other candidates, and when you see something happening like the Trump phenomenon, where you have a candidate who is bad for conservatives, bad for the party and bad for the country, you have to be able to stand up and confront it,” said Timmy Teepell, Mr. Jindal’s campaign manager.
Mr. Jindal gave a scathing news conference this month at the National Press Club, where he likened Mr. Trump to a clown who is unfit to serve as president.
He made national news and caught the attention of Mr. Trump, who tweeted: “Bobby Jindal did not make the debate stage and therefore I have never met him. I only respond to people that register more than 1% in the polls. I never thought he had a chance and I’ve been proven right.”
Mr. Rubio has steered clear of Mr. Trump, playing what some consultants call the long game. He is not engaging in the Trump media frenzy by answering loaded questions on President Obama’s faith or citizenship.
Mr. Rubio told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that he is tired of talking about unimportant issues, such as whether Mr. Obama is an American citizen.
He did take the time on the show, however, to criticize Mr. Trump’s proposed policy for Russia. It is an issue Mr. Rubio handled deftly during last week’s debate and one that contrasts him with the front-runner in a substantive way.
“It sounds like [Mr. Trump] thinks if we just have someone who gets along with Putin personally, things are going to work out better,” Mr. Rubio said on the news program. “It sounds a lot like the reset with Russia that the president tried to do. I guess he’s advocating for a reset with Putin.”
But nonengagement is not an option for candidates who are not polling as high as Mr. Rubio.
“If you’re not engaging Trump, you risk completely falling out of the conversation,” Chip Englander, campaign manager for Rand Paul, said at the National Review forum Monday.
Mr. Trump has been pushing the Republican Party into areas where many candidates prefer not to be. He has helped force immigration to the top of the issues for many Republican primary voters and sent fellow candidates scrambling to recalibrate their own stances.
That played out particularly poorly for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who suffered a series of embarrassing immigration-related stumbles, including a flip-flop on the issue of birthright citizenship.
Mr. Walker took aim at Mr. Trump Monday as the governor withdrew from the presidential race, calling on fellow candidates to also consider dropping out so “voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive conservative alternative to the current front-runner.”
Republican insiders fear the effect Mr. Trump is having.
“He just doesn’t care how this ends for the GOP, only for Trump,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant. “He’s got a hard base that loves it, but that hard base is about 9 percent of the general election model. At a time when the GOP should be proposing a forward-looking, optimistic vision of the post-Obama era, he’s locked a lot of the field into a doom-and-gloom theme of decline.”
Campaigns looking to defuse the Trump media obsession were disappointed with the CNN debate, where the moderators seemed more interested in stirring fights among the candidates than on substantive issues.
“The format was confrontational at best. I can’t remember a single question where one of the moderators said, ‘Gov. [John] Kasich, how will you fix Social Security? And what makes you think your plan will work?’ Or ‘Dr. Carson, how will you fix Obamacare?’ And then give these people time to answer the question,” said John Philip Sousa IV, who chairs a super Political Action Committee backing Mr. Carson’s presidential bid. “Instead, they were pitting candidates against one another.”
Mr. Carson has received much heat from the mainstream media for his response to a question on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday about the idea of a Muslim in the White House. Moderator Chuck Todd raised the issue after Mr. Trump didn’t dismiss a question from a man at a New Hampshire forum about Mr. Obama’s faith.
“Trump did a lousy job responding to that clown, but it was the media who picked up that ball and threw it in front of Carson as opposed to saying it’s not a news event and ask him about ISIS, the economy or Obamacare,” Mr. Sousa said. “Instead, they choose to bring Dr. Carson through the mud.”
Mr. Sousa said Mr. Carson shouldn’t have answered the question and would stop falling for Trump bait.
“He’s getting better at not answering loaded questions, but he fell into this one, and that’s OK,” Mr. Sousa said.