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Will the GOP play its Trump card?

Nobody saw Donald Trump coming.

With less than a week before the first GOP presidential debate, the last thing the Republican National Committee, establishment Republicans and the now 16 other GOP presidential candidates expected was a national conversation driven in large measure by “The Donald.”  

Morning Joe, 7/31/15, 6:02 AM ET

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Top Talkers: During a focus group, New Hampshire voters get the chance to weigh in on Donald Trump, but this time, the voters discuss the candidate’s weaknesses.
Since he entered the race, Trump has dominated both the headlines and the polls; and while a significant number of Republicans obviously like Trump or at least what he is saying, others think he’s a P.T. Barnum-type distraction and want him out of the race. But while that view may make some feel superior, they sorely miss the point of Trump. Perhaps Republicans should instead view the brash billionaire’s presence as a timely opportunity for the party and all of its presidential candidates to consider why he’s surging.

“He’s like one of us,” says one woman quoted in a recent Bloomberg focus group on Trump, conducted in New Hampshire. ”He may be a millionaire, which separates him from everybody else, but besides the money issue, he’s still in tune with what everybody is wanting.”

There’s no doubt, the blunt-talking Trump will get far more people than usual to watch the upcoming presidential debates. Yes, the curiosity seekers will tune in for the atmospherics and sheer entertainment value, but many more Americans will want to see how the other Republican candidates stand up to Trump or, more importantly, stand out on their own. This could be the one opportunity for some of them to check Trump’s dominance by demonstrating that their voice is “in tune with what everybody is wanting.”

Of course, there are risks with taking on such a big personality. But if you want to be president, isn’t that the point? Candidates shouldn’t be reckless in words or deeds, but the GOP field should recognize the growing anti-establishment mood in the country and realize that simply saying you’re running against Washington isn’t enough. Reckless or not, Trump understands that.

“The Republican base has been hungry for a feisty, unapologetic candidate for some time.”

The Republican base has been hungry for a feisty, unapologetic candidate for some time. And the more he or she takes on the liberal media and smacks around GOP opponents perceived to be less than “authentically conservative,” the better. The in-your-face impulsiveness of Trump satisfies that hunger – at least for now. The GOP base, as well as independent voters, find him refreshing.

The reason is simple. When you cut through all of the demands that he leave the race, or dire warnings about how he’s hurting the Republican Party (trust me, Trump is the least of the GOP’s problems), you’re left with the truth: Trump channels the frustration and anger of a GOP base tired of being lied to and exasperated by the phony political theater that has come to define “leadership” in Washington. 

Talk radio host Erick Erickson puts it this way: “The number one thing you hear when you ask any Republican about Donald Trump is this — he fights. You hear it from Rush Limbaugh. You hear it from other talk radio show hosts. You hear it from the base. You hear it even from some Democrats. And in all cases, you hear it somewhat admirably. They may not like or endorse Trump, but they respect that he just doesn’t give a crap and fights.”

And it is on that point that Trump affords the other candidates an opportunity to move outside their comfort zone and demonstrate what they are willing to fight for.

Hardball with Chris Matthews, 7/30/15, 7:00 PM ET

What's behind Trump's surge?

As Donald Trump’s poll numbers continue to surge, a recent focus group asked 12 Republicans what they see in the presidential hopeful. Chris Matthews discusses with RNC Chairman Michael Steele, The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, and Joan Walsh of Salon.
It’s time for establishment types in D.C., the national media and, more importantly, the Republican candidates themselves, to worry less about when Trump will leave the race and try to understand why his being in the race matters to average Americans. If you want to know what animates the Trump campaign, look no further than that New Hampshire focus group or a recent Pew Poll, which found “positive views of the GOP among Republicans declined 18 percentage points since January, from 86% to 68%.”  

Increasingly for conservatives, a major factor for this decline rests with a GOP leadership in Washington that has simply not been effective at making the case for conservatism or aggressive enough in affirming its principles. As Erickson says, “they have been so scared of being disliked that they have become disliked.”

So along comes a billionaire real estate mogul who isn’t afraid, is willing to fight, makes folks uncomfortable, says what he feels – and now sits atop every poll.

The big question remains: to what end? After all, this race is about electing a president. What happens if the provocateur in Trump begins to alienate important voting blocs like women or Hispanics from a party sorely in need of both; or the antagonist draws his rivals into a rabbit hole of distraction and recriminations? Nothing good I can assure you. But don’t lose sight of the fact that the debate in Cleveland and the remainder of this campaign will also answer for the American people whether there is a president in Trump.

The next few weeks offer an opening to test whether the rest of the GOP presidential candidates are authentic contenders and thoughtful leaders willing to take a risk in making their case – taking on the conservative fight and saying what their supporters really feel. In other words: Are they ready to play the Trump card?

Michael Steele is the former Chairman of the RNC and a political analyst at MSNBC.

Donald Trump and Michael Steele

Will the GOP play its Trump card?