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Trump off to a promising start

By William Bennett, CNN Contributor
  • William Bennett: At CPAC, Donald Trump turned jeers to applause with straight talk
  • He says voters like someone who calls 'em as he sees 'em and they're drawn to celebrity
  • He says wealth, success also compel voters, who think candidate can do that for U.S. too
  • Bennett: A Trump candidacy depends on how well he can handle rigors of campaign

Editor's note: William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush. For another view, read "Is Trump bid a political freak show?"

(CNN) -- For the past three months, Donald Trump has been making a lot of news about his possible run for the presidency. It started in February when he spoke at the annual gathering of CPAC Video.

Proving he is willing to call 'em as he sees 'em, and not following the traditional advice for prospective candidates that it's not a good idea to anger your audience, he jumped right in to challenge the Ron Paul supporters in the crowd, saying of Paul, "He has zero chance of getting elected."

Trump was booed and jeered, but he did not care. He did not couch or backtrack. Instead he looked right into the crowd and then said something that converted the heckles to applause, "If I run, and if I win, this country will be respected again."

What most observers picked up from this small moment was: A) Trump would not be a poll-tested, talking point candidate. B) He would be willing to challenge audiences in front of him, caring less about their applause and more about speaking his own mind. C) There is an authenticity to him. There was something about his speaking up for a newly respected America that rang honest and sincere -- and most importantly, was needed.

Americans have always had a fascination with personalities and families of tremendous wealth and unique celebrity. Think for a moment as to why the upcoming royal wedding is set to be the largest television event in history. There is a capturing of the imagination. There is a bit of envy. And there's even a bit of self-reflective possibility that one could achieve equal fame and riches.

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But when Americans see a billionaire enter the public fray, there is something else as well: an immediate, even if temporary, plus-factor, beyond the billionaire's ability to self-finance or buy media time. A percentage of the population sees successful businessmen or businesswomen as not only embodying a big part of the American dream, but as people who can do for the country what they did for themselves.

As campaigns roll on, however, the typical billionaire candidate has not fared that well. Political experience tends to matter in the end, and Americans end up wanting something more than just a personal success story.

But Donald Trump could be the exception to the rule (emphasis on "could").

Already he has given new life to the dying trope that President Barack Obama might not have been born in the United States. While many of us think the "birther" issue is a distraction and nonstarter, Trump has put it back on the table, raising questions that many of us had long-ago stopped asking, giving a new element of respectability to the question itself.

I suspect right now that since Trump has resurrected this issue, many people at kitchen tables across the country who raise it are saying or thinking something along the lines of "I don't quite believe it, but there are some questions to be asked here." It's quite an incredible movement of an issue many of us had long thought dead.

Then there is the latest CNN poll showing Trump to be tied for first place in the Republican field of candidates, beating other, more experienced, politicians such as Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and Haley Barbour. Much of this renewed fascination with Trump could be the result of an early blasé attitude about the current candidates in the field.

But Trump has succeeded in doing two things the GOP base wants in its candidates: he will not be rolled or take flak from the mainstream media (see, for example, his recent interview on the "Today" show or his recent letter to The New York Times directly criticizing an established columnist there); and he has stated he is now anti-abortion (in a way that actually sounds authentic rather than convenient to some anti-abortion analysts).

Right now, Trump has captured the imagination of those looking for straight talk and celebrity. But despite his early 2011 apprenticeship in politics, Republicans will still need to hear a lot more from Donald Trump. Can he explain his donations to Democrats? What are his foreign and defense policy plans? His tax plans? His views on controlling our deficits? How will he do in debates with other, more seasoned, politicians?

Will he maintain he will run as an independent if he loses the GOP primaries? (That would end all possibilities.) And can he take the constant and continued challenges that come from voters, media and fellow candidates in a way that, say, Ross Perot could not? We'll find out in the next two to three months. In the meantime, it's difficult to say Trump is not off to a promising start -- but the season has only just begun.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.

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