Donald Trump: The guy GOP candidates can't ignore

Story highlights

  • Gloria Borger: At first, GOP candidates ignored Trump, hoping he would go away
  • She says they now realize they need a strategy to counter him, and that strategy varies

(CNN)At first, the immense field of GOP presidential contenders figured Donald Trump could be treated like the annoying bad boy who would eventually give up and go away.

They tried to avoid him or dismiss him -- or at least not play into his hands. "The last thing we want to do is empower him," is the way one party official put it to me. "Why light a match underneath Trump?"
Gloria Borger
As it turns out, Trump needed no one else's fuel. Over the last month, Trump's messages on immigration, the Washington establishment and the economy have provided enough helium to take him into first place among Republicans nationwide in three recent polls.
    Not only that, his party favorability is growing. There's something about Trump that has tapped into the anger of the most conservative parts of the GOP base who feel alienated from their own party, not to mention from politicians.
    As a result, the other candidates have discovered, attention must be paid. Strategery must be hatched to deal with The Donald.
    Like many things in life, where you stand depends on where you sit.
    For those GOP contenders currently sitting in the single digits — and trying to qualify to get on stage with Trump at that first debate — the decisions aren't rocket science: Use Trump to get noticed. Former New York Gov. George Pataki — who "couldn't be elected dogcatcher," in New York, according to Trump — was the first out of the box, likening Trump's language to a "punchline in a reality show."
    For these struggling candidates, the formula is simple: When Trump bashes, bash him back.
    That's what Sen. Lindsey -- "he's-a-wrecking-ball" -- Graham did. Same play for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was accused by Trump of doing a "terrible job," allowing the Texas border to become a porous mess. Perry then accused Trump of a "fundamental misunderstanding" of how border security works. What's more, he added for good measure, Trump spouts "a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense" on immigration.
    Clearly, the Perry camp has had enough. Trumping Trump is now a strategy.
    Not only because Trump has attacked Perry, but also because they have nothing to gain, really, by tiptoeing around Trump — who, by the way, then responded to Perry in a tweet worthy of a high school Twitter war. "@GovernorPerry failed on the border. He should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate."
    Ah, but if you're Sen. Ted Cruz, also back in the single digits — you understand that the Trump support comes from your own piece of the pie. Ipso facto, the Cruz strategy: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Which is what he has done, complimenting Trump as "bold" and "brash," even going to Trump Tower to kiss the ring — just in case, one day, Trump is gone and might friend you. Or just as a way to somehow get in on the conversation, any conversation, to raise the profile of your candidacy.
    It's another story, however, if you're at or near the top of the pack. Playing it safe with Trump was the de facto position — until about one month into the full-blown Trumpathon, when Jeb Bush finally figured it out: Donald Trump is holding up a mirror to the Republican Party. He either reflects you, or he does not. Jeb Bush is not likely to get Trump's supporters, but he is likely to get the support of those Republicans — and even, in New Hampshire, independent voters -- watching to see how he reacts to Trump. For those voters, it's a leadership moment.
    Eventually, this week, Bush did allow that, "I don't want to be associated with the kind of vitriol he's spewing out these days." Now that Bush is finally out of the box, there's no going back. And he won't, according to one close ally.
    Bush's putative fellow front-runners are still figuring it out. Sen. Marco Rubio, at least, decided early on that Trump's appeal on immigration is not likely to extend to his cohort. So he called Trump's comments "not just offensive and inaccurate, but also divisive." As for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, not so much. He would only allow that if faced with Trump on a debate stage, he would "respectfully disagree." Wonder how Trump would respond to that?
    Everybody gets the realpolitik here. Candidates are figuring out what works for them, including Trump. But that's a short-term issue. The party primaries are about the candidates, yes. But the Republican Party itself is also a brand. If the brand gets tarnished, it's bad for business.
    Just ask Donald Trump.