Steer clear of the “stupid zone.”
That’s how one Republican consultant is telling the GOP field to react to Donald Trump’s explosive entry into the White House race.
The real estate mogul, flinging insults and bombast while announcing his run Tuesday, is threatening to upend the party’s singular focus on a primary process that yields the strongest possible nominee and avoids some of the farcical scenes that tarnished candidates in 2012’s circus-style debates.
GOP insiders also warn that more conventional presidential hopefuls must beware Trump’s efforts to draw them into his constantly swirling media vortex, one that could lure them into political controversies and hurt their appeal to moderate voters.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush found out about the Trump effect firsthand Wednesday, when he was asked about the brazen reality show star’s plan to build a great wall on the border to keep out Mexican “rapists” and criminals.
With an awkward smile, a muttered ‘no’ and a shake of the head, Bush refused to take the bait, proving that he at least is aware of the danger.
Trump, of course, rejects the notion that his candidacy is anything close to damaging to his own party, instead calling it a boon to the GOP when asked Wednesday to respond to Republicans who say he is a distraction to the primary process in a tough election year.
“I think I’ll help the party because we have a lot of Republicans who don’t know what they’re doing unfortunately. That’s why the country’s in such bad shape,” Trump told CNN after a Manchester, New Hampshire rally.
Will fellow Republicans resist Trump’s provocations?
How long Bush and fellow GOP 2016 presidential hopefuls can maintain that discipline, hold their tongues and resist Trump’s provocations could dictate just how much the billionaire wildcard will impact the party’s primary contests.
There is already genuine concern among Republican operatives about the damage that an unleashed Donald Trump could do to the party’s hopes of winning back the White House.
GOP strategist Rick Wilson, not affiliated with any candidate, said Trump is a “disruptive and dangerous” addition to the Republican primary field who would try to goad his rivals into confrontations that could harm the party’s image.
Trump, in his opening blast, questioned Bush’s intellect and dress sense – what is sure to be the first of many such slams. And Trump’s attacks on Mexico could jolt Republican efforts to appeal more to the vital Hispanic voting bloc.
“Dismiss it, walk past it, ignore it,” Wilson said, explaining how the 11-and-counting other GOP candidates can avoid being pulled into what he called Trump’s “stupid zone.”
But another GOP strategist, Ford O’ Connell, who is not currently working with a GOP presidential contender, said it was not going to be easy for candidates to turn the other cheek.
“If you are one of the other candidates, particularly one that has a window to victory, it’s hard to ignore The Donald … but that is your best bet,” he said.
Trump’s extraordinary announcement speech on Tuesday was laced with cutting mockery of other GOP candidates, warnings to Iran and ISIS, a vow to beat a rising China – despite his professed “love” for the communist state’s free-wheeling economy – and repeated boasts about his own massive wealth.
In the surreal aftermath, people in politics and the media aren’t quite sure how to treat Trump. Is he just a blustery reality star seeking a personal boost and an avalanche of publicity from a presidential run? Or could he, using the considerable savvy with which he built a real estate empire, actually be making a serious attempt to win the nomination — or at the very least shape the political outlines of the GOP race.
While top-tier presidential candidates like Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker may have little to gain from a tangle with Trump, the temptation for a lesser candidate – desperate for the media spotlight – might prove irresistible.
“It’s going to take a team effort to ignore Trump,” said O’Connell.
“All that has to happen is some lower-tier candidate to fall for the Donald Trump act and have it all it ricochet back on the rest of them.”
The question that Bush faced in Iowa is an example of the way that other candidates, like it or not, will end up being forced to respond to Trump.
Candidates seek to benefit from Trump’s spotlight
But Wilson warned candidates away from thinking that could benefit them.
“There’s not a particularly relevant political upside to getting into a pissing match with Donald Trump,” he said. “Any candidate who thinks they’re going to elevate themselves off of Trump doesn’t understand that celebrity candidates operate in a sort of different airspace than they do.”
With his fame, cash and talent for grabbing publicity, no one is betting against Trump capturing a top-10 spot in national polls, the threshhold needed to participate in the top-tier debates this summer.
It is likely to be a moment of acute risk for other candidates if Trump is still on the prowl, though not every Republican believes Trump’s entry into the race is bad news.
Ray Tweedie, a senior official with the GOP in New Hampshire, said that Trump’s undeniably entertaining announcement rally on Tuesday had got people talking and could help to convince independent voters to look at the party.
“There are people who I wouldn’t consider political who are talking about Mr. Trump’s politics,” Tweedie said of voters he’s come across in the Granite State.
If Trump can “get people to start realizing, in very plain, Washington terms, that things are bad,” he can engage new people in the political process and “plant the seeds of ideas in our party,” Tweedie said.
New Hampshire State Rep. Stephen Stepanek has already endorsed Trump – and hosted a House party for Trump during his previous visit to the state. He said he had decided to think “outside the box,” as it was time to stop appeasing the political establishment.
“The American people are getting tired of all this political correctness and everything that goes along with it,” he said. “It’s time to shake things up and it’s time to do what’s best for the American people.”
With his blunt words, Trump has a certain bracing charm that could appeal to disenchanted voters who are sick of conventional political leaders.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, another GOP hopeful, told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday that Trump is “hitting on issues that Americans care about” and should not be dismissed.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said that although the media was “scoffing” about Trump’s performance Wednesday, his fulminating about American decline would “resonate” with some voters.
How to tell if Trump is serious
And there are other markers of Trump’s seriousness about a long run.
Presidential candidates must file an official disclosure on their finances within 120 days of launching a campaign. Trump’s massive empire will make that a complicated process and an intrusive one, but he has said he will do so by the first GOP debate in August.
He would also need to put his thriving media career on hold. NBC is already “re-evaluating” his status on “The Apprentice,” which because of rules and conventions designed to mitigate political bias, would be incompatible with his status as a declared political candidate.
If Trump passes those two tests, scrutiny will start to shift toward his appeal in the GOP race, which lacks a clear front runner.
In last month’s CNN/ORC national poll of the Republican field, Trump languished at 3%, alongside long shots Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and George Pataki, a former New York governor.
In New Hampshire, where Trump was campaigning on Wednesday, he’s doing better: fifth place with 8% of the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
But he has significant hurdles to overcome before he can be considered a genuine threat to establishment candidates when the votes are tallied.
“He is a very well-known candidate. Only Jeb Bush has higher name recognition,” Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
He added: “He has the highest unfavorable ratings of any candidate who is running in New Hampshire.”
CNN’s Maeve Reston and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.