Trump's Political Reality Show: Will the Donald Really Run for President?

Donald Trump, who has been toying with the idea of a presidential-campaign announcement, talks as if the nation were just another run-down co-op in need of redevelopment. But could the business mogul and TV personality actually corral Washington?

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Marco Grob for TIME

Donald Trump

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At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump went even further with his Manchurian Candidate critique of Obama. "The people who went to school with him, they don't even know him. They never saw him," Trump said, a claim belied by dozens of interviews that have been conducted with the President's childhood classmates and teachers. Trump even argues that the 1960s radical Bill Ayers secretly wrote Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father. No less than Glenn Beck, the reigning king of political paranoia, thinks Trump has gone too far. "I could walk around the streets of New York without pants, and I could get attention," Beck recently said of Trump's wilder claims. "But that's not going to help me."

Maybe not, but it may not hurt Trump much either. There are signs he is striking a chord in the relative vacuum of the 2012 Republican campaign. Two recent national polls by different news organizations both found Trump favored first or second among Republican primary voters. In New Hampshire, according to Public Policy Polling, Trump garners 21%, second behind Romney, with 27%. And so Trump has continued to work his levers behind the scenes.

"NBC wants to renew me for three seasons," Trump explains. "I've told them, I'm sorry. At this moment, I can't think about that because I have a big decision to make." He has been chatting up the new head of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, and speaking regularly to Christopher Ruddy, the proprietor of Newsmax and a force in conservative circles, who happens to be a member of Trump's opulent Palm Beach, Fla., club Mar-a-Lago. Trump has also been reconnoitering with Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who lives in a Trump building in Manhattan. There are plans in the works for a sit-down with pro-life leaders. "He can win," claims Conway, bucking the nearly unanimous view among the Beltway elite, explaining that "2012 is an aspiration election. When you think aspiration and upward mobility, you think Donald Trump."

Though he has been playing to Republicans, Trump has also been careful to stoke the fires of an independent candidacy if a GOP bid does not work out. He might even have centrist appeal, says Roger Stone, a controversial GOP operative who once worked on behalf of the Trump-branded Atlantic City casinos, which have filed repeatedly for bankruptcy in recent years. He says Trump's name has always played best among core Democratic voting groups. "He's a working-class hero," argues Stone, who is no longer employed by Trump but is soliciting contributions for the cause at DraftTrump2012.com. "Blacks and Hispanics and lower-class whites like his lifestyle."

Meanwhile, one of Trump's senior executives, Michael Cohen, has been leading another Trump 2012 charge, booking interviews and appearances for Trump and financing a website called ShouldTrumpRun.com. Cohen works closely with Stewart Rahr, a billionaire philanthropist known in the society pages as Stewie Rah Rah, the No. 1 King of All Fun, who once handed out a business card that looked like a $1 billion bill, emblazoned with a picture of Rahr, Trump and former President Bill Clinton on a golf outing. "I believe the country needs leadership," says Rahr, who also lives in a Trump building, belongs to Trump's country clubs and has promised to spend whatever he legally can to elect him. "Every other third-world country, outside country is marching all over us," he explains.

A few weeks back, Cohen and Rahr planned to fly to Iowa to meet the state GOP chairman to discuss a Trump speaking event in June. Not wanting to fly commercial, Rahr asked Trump if he could borrow the Trump 727 for the trip and pay the tab. Then, at the last minute, Rahr had to jet to New Orleans to meet with an actor about a movie deal, leaving Cohen to fly alone to Des Moines on a plane that can carry more than 100 people. "You know, it's not easy walking around a 727 by yourself," Cohen says, kidding.

This is Trump's world, one that is simply more garish than the world of politics. "I look very much forward to showing my financials, because they are huge," Trump says of the disclosures he would make if he launched a campaign. "Far bigger than anyone knows. Far bigger than anyone would understand." Like so much of what he says, it is hard to know how much he means it and how much is just Trump, extending the sold-out show.

But could Trump actually corral Washington? Does he even know how many members there are in the House of Representatives? "Well, I don't want to answer your questions because this isn't a history class," he shoots back, adding that of course he knows the answer. "You could get some stiff that knows every one of those answers but is incapable of governing." Well, then can he give us any assurance that he is really serious about this campaign? That he is not just pulling the country along for another prime-time joyride? "You have no assurance," he says. "I am just telling you I hate what is happening to the country."

Then the interview ends. The tape recorder is switched off, and Trump follows the reporter to the elevator with a framed picture fetched by one of his employees. It is a 1989 cover of TIME with a photo of Trump holding up the ace of diamonds. "No 15 minutes for Trump," he says as the doors slide open, boasting — and blustering — to the very end.

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