As he continues to soar in the polls, billionaire Donald Trump is attempting to lower expectations about his performance when he meets with nine other GOP presidential candidates on stage Thursday in Cleveland.
Trump stormed to the head of the massive field of GOP presidential candidates in the past two months with his brash, street-fighter style. He raised hackles by denouncing illegal immigrants as rapists and criminals, dismissing former Florida governor Jeb Bush as “too weak” to stand up to ISIS terrorists, and suggesting that former Texas governor Rick Perry isn’t bright enough to participate in the first of nine prime time GOP debates.
Yet in making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows today, Trump sought to downplay his debating skills and vowed that he would not be the aggressor on stage – all the while tossing off lines criticizing Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky as being “very weak on defense” and repeating his critique of Bush as a lackluster leader.
“I’m not a debater,” Trump told ABC News’s Jonathan Karl in a phone call from New York., where he was resting up after a weekend diversion to a golf tournament in Scotland. “These politicians, I always say, they’re all talk and no action. They debate all the time. They go out and debate every night. I don’t debate. I’ve built…I’ve created tremendous jobs. I’ve built a great company. And maybe my whole life is a debate in a way. But the fact is I’m not a debater and they are.”
As for his debate strategy, Trump suggested that he would strike a more statesmanlike pose – unless, of course, he is provoked. “I don’t think I’m going to be throwing punches, I’m not looking to attack,” he explained. “Don’t forget, every attack I made was a counter punch. They attacked me first and I hit them back – and maybe harder than they hit me. But the fact is I’ve been attacked viciously by some of these guys.”
Perry, of course, described Trump as a “cancer” on conservatism and the GOP and that he must somehow be removed. Trump blasted the former Texas governor for inadequately handling the immigration crisis at the border and said Perry started wearing glasses to look smarter.
While many of his toughest rivals -- including Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- have been prepping for the debate, Trump suggests that he will wing it Thursday night and speak extemporaneously on the wide range of issues that are certain to come up without the benefit of poll-tested lines fed to him by advisers.
Trump clearly is causing heartburn for the rest of the GOP field and party leaders. The party’s image has been taking a beating lately because of Trump’s harsh, anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as bitter intraparty squabbling in Congress and along the campaign trail. At the same time, the party has seen a substantial decline in its favorability rating – which according to the Pew Research Center dropped from 41 percent last January to just 32 percent now.
Trumps’ numbers, meanwhile, have skyrocketed in recent weeks as he has tapped into growing voter frustration and anger with the political establishment and an apparent desire for more straight-talk and simple solutions to inherently complicated problems.
A new poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal released on Sunday shows Trump continuing to surge with 19 percent of the GOP primary voters backing him as their first choice. Trump is followed in the survey by Walker with 15 percent and Bush with 14 percent.
Retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson continues to show strength with 10 percent of the vote, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas with 9 percent, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul tied at six percent apiece, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida with 5 percent, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Perry and Ohio Gov. John Kasich each with 3 percent.
Only the top 10 candidates -- based on the cumulative average of the last five major national polls -- will be allowed to participate in Thursday’s nationally televised debate being sponsored by Fox News and scheduled to begin at 9 pm EST.
At this point, Perry likely will not make the cut, while Christie and Kasich have a good chance of being included, according to NBC. Kasich was one of the last of the 17 prominent Republicans to enter the race recently, and he is fighting to be included in the high-profile debate being staged in his home state.
Asked during an appearance on the Fox News Sunday program whether he would be embarrassed to be kept off the stage, the former House member shrugged and said, “I’d rather not be embarrassed,” life is too short to get worked up about it.
One concern of Republicans is the possibility that Trump would consider mounting a third-party candidacy loses the nomination. “If I’m not treated fairly by the Republican Party, I very well might consider [a third-party challenge] and I would certainly not give that up,” he told ABC News.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus warned today that a third-party candidacy by either a prominent Republican or Democrat would be the death knell for their party in an almost certain close election. He said that he would hope Trump and all the other GOP candidates would stand by the eventual nominee.