Presidential politics is a lot like American Idol. Through a gruelling primary contest, a multifarious field of Oval Office wannabes is whittled down until the public crowns a single Democrat or Republican.
Leave it to The Donald to turn the 2012 race into an actual reality show by riding the royal "me" to the top of the heap of Republican White House contenders. If it isn't quite art, it is quite a performance.
"People see me as somebody who loves the country, but maybe even more importantly, [who]will not let our great country be ripped off by so many others," Donald Trump told Good Morning America on Tuesday in one of several television interviews trumpeting his potential candidacy.
Mr. Trump, the billionaire host of The Celebrity Apprentice, knows a thing or two about brazen self-promotion. So, it is natural to dismiss his latest presidential musings as a ratings ploy in advance of sweeps week.
His lack of circumspection in questioning Barack Obama's birthplace, calling for the U.S. seizure of Iraqi oil fields and blaming America's problems on the rest of the world suggest he cannot possibly be serious about running - or would not be taken seriously as a viable contender.
Yet, given the lacklustre crew vying to take on Mr. Obama in 2012, Mr. Trump's candidacy might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if it doesn't, he has already overshadowed the likely GOP finalists so much that, without him, voters could flee the party out of sheer boredom.
"He's convinced a number of voters he's just the guy to run against Obama, to get out there and tell the unvarnished truth," said Timothy Meyer, chairman of the communications program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. "Some are saying: 'Maybe this is the guy who is going to catch on.' "
When March and April's most credible polls are averaged out, Mr. Trump places third behind Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney among a dozen potential Republican nominees. And his support is climbing. In one April 14 poll of Republican primary voters, Mr. Trump came out well on top.
The Trump factor is scaring the Republican establishment. Party bigwigs have moved aggressively in recent days to shut down The Donald's campaign by discrediting him at every turn. But their attacks may only end up encouraging him.
Mr. Trump, 64, has carved out a political niche that defies easy categorization. You might call it "elite populism." He blabs about his wealth and superiority all while throwing red meat to a rapacious Republican base.
"The world is just destroying our country," Mr. Trump said Tuesday on the Today show, laying the blame for America's economic woes at China's feet. He has repeatedly called for the United States to slap punishing tariffs on Chinese goods until it stops manipulating its currency.
On Good Morning America, he vowed to take on the oil cartel.
"Look at what's happening to gasoline prices. They're going to go to $5, $6, $7 [a gallon]and we don't have anybody in Washington that calls OPEC and says: 'Fellows, it's time, it's over,' " he crowed. "I'm going to look them in the eye and say: 'Fellows, you've had your fun.' "
Whether or not Mr. Trump is presidential timber, he has already demonstrated his political sixth sense. Rising gas prices have been a major source of voter anger in recent weeks, and are considered one of the main reasons Mr. Obama's job approval rating has slumped to near its 2010 low.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday showed that almost four-fifths of Americans think inflation is rising. Forty-four per cent of Americans think the economy is getting worse and 55 per cent disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy.
Numbers like that would make any president vulnerable. But the ABC poll showed that Republican voters are highly dissatisfied with their party's crop of potential 2012 nominees and the group's near invisibility in the media testifies to the lack of excitement the GOP contenders generate.
The exception to the GOP invisibility rule is, of course, Sarah Palin. But even she is making herself scarcer as her own poll numbers sink. And the 2008 vice-presidential candidate's contempt for the "lamestream media" means she rarely grants interviews, except to Fox News.
Mr. Trump is an equal opportunity schmoozer. His media exposure and availability have been so extensive in recent weeks that one wonders when he finds time to run the real estate and reality TV empire that has made him, according to Forbes, worth $2.7-billion (U.S.).
He says the real figure is higher. But he won't release his tax returns, he says, until Mr. Obama produces his birth certificate.
By appealing to the "birthers," who contend the President was not born in the United States, Mr. Trump has gone down a path that not even Ms. Palin considers worthy.
In any normal election cycle, he would be written off as unfit for the Oval Office. And his countless flip-flops on abortion, gay marriage, trade, taxes and other pet peeves of the right would have already disqualified him.
But there is a void in Republican politics. And, for now, Mr. Trump is the only one with the mouth to fill it.