Look at me! Look at me!
It’s become the battle cry of Republican presidential candidates who find Donald Trump drawing the attention they badly crave.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas took the extraordinary step Friday of saying on the Senate floor that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was “lying.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told Brietbart News on Saturday that President Barack Obama is leading Israelis to “the door of the oven” with the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama fired back at a press conference Monday during a visit to Ethiopia, characterizing Huckabee’s comment as “ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.”
He also suggested, “Maybe this is just an effort to push Mr. Trump out of the headlines.”
Trump is eating into support that seemed headed to other Republican presidential candidates. The Monmouth University Iowa poll July 16-19 found that among supporters of the tea party, the grassroots conservative group that rails against all things Washington, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leads. Trump is second and Cruz is third.
Trump dominated political news recently, saying in Iowa that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, was not a war hero “because he was captured,” and “I like people who weren’t captured.” A few days later, he gave out the cellphone number of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican presidential rival. Trump, annoyed at reports that Graham had called him a “jackass,” announced the number to an audience in Graham’s home state.
The McCain comments didn’t seem to have an immediate effect on Trump’s Iowa support, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey.
But, Murray noted, “He has cobbled together a unique coalition of ticked-off voters that spans the ideological spectrum.” He is also taking voters from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a more centrist 2016 Republican presidential hopeful who also rails against the status quo.
The problem for Christie and the others: How to break through the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump, who delights in tweaking the GOP field and has the instincts of a showman – all of which makes him generally irresistible to the news media.
The media-grabbing comments also follow a recent tactic, often from Republicans, of seeking the spotlight with claims and remarks that appear outrageous. As with his Holocaust reference to the Iran nuclear deal, Huckabee last year ignited controversy when he took on Democrats’ claim that Republicans were waging a war on women.
“If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it,” he told a Republican National Committee meeting.
In 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an advocacy group backed by prominent Republicans, questioned the military record of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and currently the secretary of state. The claims by the group, supported by Republican backers of President George W. Bush, were discredited but were thought to have hurt Kerry politically.
Now comes Trump, getting lots of attention.
“Trump is certainly taking up a lot of the available media oxygen in the GOP primary, which is preventing other candidates from breaking through,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan Virginia-based research group.
The problem for these and some other candidates is that only those in the top 10, including ties, in an average of national polls will qualify for next week’s Republican debate. Others will be relegated to a late-afternoon forum.
Trump is appealing to the audience that might have gone elsewhere. They’re fed up with Washington, want a serious crackdown on illegal immigration and appreciate candid candidates seemingly not driven by polls or focus groups.
Cruz and Huckabee have had strong appeal to this crowd. Trump, though, has the advantage of running as an outsider, said Bill Dal Col, who managed Steve Forbes’ 1996 and 2000 outsider campaigns.
“I think with the debate rules, candidates need better poll numbers and will do anything to get instant media attention to drive their numbers up,” Dal Col said.
Cruz played the outsider this weekend inside one of Washington’s most venerable institutions. On the Senate floor Friday, he accused McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, of lying about whether he made a deal to have the re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank attached to highway legislation that senators must pass by the end of this week. Senators traditionally refrain from criticizing colleagues on the floor, and rarely do they make such barbed comments anywhere about leaders of their own party.
That prompted Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Senate’s most senior Republican, to take a veiled swing at presidential candidates who may be using the chamber as part of their campaign whistlestop tour.
“We must ensure that the pernicious trend of turning the Senate floor into a forum for advancing personal ambitions, for promoting political campaigns or for enhancing fundraising activities comes to a stop,” Hatch said in a lengthy speech Sunday on Senate decorum. “There are enough other platforms for those seeking to accomplish those objectives.”
Cruz remained undaunted Sunday, issuing a lengthy statement accusing McConnell of working in concert with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Striking the pose of an outsider, Cruz said, “The American people elected a Republican majority believing that a Republican majority would be somehow different from a Democratic majority in the United States Senate.”
Huckabee was courting the same voters. He told Brietbart, a conservative website, that the Iran nuclear deal was “idiotic.” That led to a verbal duel with Obama, who also responded more broadly to the recent tone of the GOP presidential race.
The president cited Trump’s remarks about McCain, saying that when the New York developer and reality TV star made the comments, “the Republican Party is shocked.”
“And yet that arises out of a culture where, you know, those kinds of outrageous attacks have become far too commonplace and get circulated nonstop through the Internet and talk radio and news outlets,” he said.
Should Trump fade, the Republican race in Iowa becomes even more of a free-for-all. A Quinnipiac poll last month asked Iowa caucus participants their second choices, and no clear favorite emerged. The same held true for conservative and moderate-liberal voters.
In the meantime, trumping Trump is proving difficult.
“Candidates who need better poll numbers will do anything to get instant media attention to drive their numbers,” said Dal Col. “You’re going to see candidates on the bubble try to grab attention. They may get a little close to the edge to do it.”