Trump’s Strange New Power: GOP Rivals Vie for His Endorsement

David A. Graham on The Donald’s strange hold over the GOP field.

At the moment, his might be the most coveted endorsement in the Republican race.

No, not Herman Cain—he’s damaged goods. Not George W. Bush—also damaged goods, although for different reasons. Not elder statesmen George H.W. Bush, John McCain, or Bob Dole—too moderate, too heterodox, and too far removed from the spotlight, respectively.

It’s the Donald.

Five months after the reality TV star and real-estate icon dropped out of the Republican race—derided for his birtherism and his grasp of the issues, tenuous at best—Donald Trump is back and wielding power like never before. Late this month, he’ll host a GOP presidential debate, and he’s promised to endorse soon after that. Monday morning, he met with Newt Gingrich, an old friend and member of Trump’s exclusive golf club.

The two men had a good chat, and even hatched a plan for a youth version of Trump’s television show, The Apprentice. In line with Gingrich’s suggestion that teenagers be put to work—originally proposed as a way to save money and improve schools, the former House speaker now says it’s a way to introduce a culture of work to “urban areas”—the two men hatched a plan for “apprenti” pulled from the ranks of ambitious poor New York youths.

Trump says he’s excited. “This would be very interesting,” he says. “It’s something we’re looking at seriously. There are a lot of very smart kids in the city.”

And he’s got more praise for Gingrich. “I’ve known him for a long time, and he’s a great guy,” Trump gushes. “He’s got a vision for the country and a lot of people are liking it. He’s done amazingly well in the polls, and quickly.”

So why not just endorse the Georgian now and get it over with? Trump says he’s waiting until after the Dec. 27 debate to decide. Anticipation for the event is building, but he’s not too stressed about measuring up to the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Charlie Rose, and Maria Bartiromo, and he confides that his debate prep is low-key.

“I understand the issues well, I’ve been a student of the issues for a long time. I get it. You don’t want to overprepare,” he says. “I built a great empire over a short period of time. I understand how to create jobs. Who would be better, me or some moderator that’s never employed anyone?”

Trump’s sudden reemergence into the public arena might have something to do with his desire to sell his new book, Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again. He caught up with The Daily Beast in the midst of a long day—he’d gotten up early to promote the book on the Today Show, and was about to host guests at his home, but he insisted he wasn’t really hustling the book. “I’m not doing that much promotion. All my books sell well,” he says, adding, “It’s maybe the best one I’ve done. I worked hardest on this one.”

But if the book is Trump’s motivation for playing kingmaker, it’s less clear why so many GOP candidates are lining up to solicit his favor—including Mitt Romney, who’s worked hard to cultivate an image of detached technocratic braininess, rather than willingness to chase celebrity approval. Even Trump’s old friend, Newt Gingrich, has bashed him in the past, although he was laudatory today.

Besides, Trump’s short-lived candidacy was somewhat farcical, punctuated by a will-he-or-won’t-he game over whether he’d reveal his real net worth (a subject of some dispute), his questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate, and nonsensical vows to tax China. There’s also no clear reason to expect—other than his extremely high name recognition—that his imprimatur would sway large swathes of the Republican electorate.

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Regardless, it’s clear that the Trump primary is down to two main candidates: Romney and Gingrich (don’t bother speculating about Jon Huntsman or Ron Paul surges around Trump; since they said they’d blow off his debate, he has no time for them). Assuming the two remain his favorites, how will he choose between them?

“What I’m looking for is someone who can stop the rest of the world from just absolutely destroying our economic system. Everyone takes advantage of the U.S. We don’t make good deals,” he says. As far as deciding which candidate will better respond, “There would be specific things [I’d be looking for] and I’d take a look at the plans.”

What specifics? Trump pauses.

“I’ll let you know later,” the GOP’s most watched endorser promises.