POLITICS

Antics of Donald Trump once again steal the spotlight from presidential rivals

07/21/2015 04:09 EDT | Updated 07/21/2016 05:59 EDT
WASHINGTON - The cover cartoon on this week's New Yorker offers an apt visual metaphor for the early phase of the 2016 U.S. presidential election: Donald Trump flamboyantly belly-flopping into a pool, clearing out everyone else.

He did it again Tuesday.

The real-estate magnate managed to soak up the attention on a day that, under normal circumstances, would have belonged to a more-experienced, less-ostentatious political rival.

The popular governor of arguably the most important state in U.S. presidential politics, John Kasich of Ohio, had just announced his bid to seek the Republican nomination.

But the former federal legislator, investment banker, and governor who won 86 of Ohio's 88 counties in a landslide re-election bid risked immediately being drowned out by the latest Trump cannonball.

This one involved Trump handing out the cellphone number of a United States senator and rival candidate, Lindsey Graham, to basically the entire world.

Resentful at being referred to as a "jackass" by Graham, Trump told a campaign rally that the South Carolina senator had begged him a few years ago to be introduced to friends at Fox News and had given Trump his number.

Trump responded by applying two of the life-lessons laid out in the adulatory autobiographies he's written with titles like, "The Art of the Deal," and "Think BIG and Kick Ass."

One involves doing outrageous things to get attention. The other is to always get revenge. He did both Tuesday.

Dramatically pulling out a sheet of paper, Trump said: "And I found the card (with Graham's number)."

"I don't know if it's the right number," Trump said. "Maybe it's an old number...

"Give it a shot," he told the audience.

And with that Trump read it out to the crowd, the cameras, and anyone who cared to tune in. Graham was promptly inundated with calls, which mostly went straight to voicemail.

A Republican hawk on foreign policy but considered a moderate on other issues, Graham had sparred with Trump over his remarks about illegal Mexican immigrants and was outraged over Trump poking fun at Sen. John McCain's experience as a prisoner of war.

Polls show the publicity-grabbing billionaire atop the Republican field, although an extensive survey has yet to be conducted since the McCain incident.

A political scientist has attempted to explain the Trump phenomenon. Many observers have suggested his coarse tongue and illegal-immigrant-trashing have endeared him to a sizeable audience.

But John Sides offers another explanation: the media attention.

The George Washington University researcher co-authored a book on the 2012 presidential race, "The Gamble," that describes a three-phase cycle in the life of a primary candidate: Discovery, scrutiny and decline.

It uses extensive data to show how the Herman Cains, Rick Santorums and Newt Gingriches of the last election saw their popularity soar with heavy, mostly positive, news coverage only to have those gains evaporate when the stories got tougher.

For now, other candidates in this cycle are being prevented from frolicking in that happy first phase of public discovery. Sides suggests the reality-TV-starring mogul has drained lots of the attention from the pool.

He estimates that Trump has received double the news coverage of most other Republican candidates, with only Jeb Bush coming close: "People are being bombarded with news stories about Trump," Sides wrote in his blog on the Washington Post.

He suggested this week's controversies could be a transition to that second, more difficult phase, where media and the public start scrutinizing him a little more and challenging him on his policies.

Republican rivals certainly hope so.

A spokesman for Graham lamented some of the things not being discussed while Trump hogs the conversation.

"Because of Trump's bombastic and ridiculous campaign, we aren't talking about Obama's horrible deal with Iran or Hillary Clinton's plans to continue Obama's failed national security agenda," Christian Ferry told CNN.

And on Tuesday afternoon, an article about Trump's cellphone stunt on the Politico website had been shared in social media almost 20 times more often — and drawn almost 10 times as many comments — as a story on the same site about Ohio's governor launching his presidential campaign.

Trump's antics even overshadowed a publicity stunt Tuesday where Sen. Rand Paul used a chainsaw to shred the U.S. tax code.