POSTED: 07:18 a.m. HST, Mar 19, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 12:52 p.m. HST, Mar 19, 2011
NEW YORK >> Donald Trump boots contestants off his TV show with a famous two-word catch phrase: "You're fired." He may want the chance to say the same to President Barack Obama.
The real estate tycoon with the comb-over hairdo and in-your-face attitude plans to decide by June whether to join the field of GOP contenders competing in 2012 to make the Democratic incumbent a one-term president.
Trump insists he's serious. He rejects skeptics' claims that he's using the publicity to draw viewers to "Celebrity Apprentice," the NBC reality program he co-produces and hosts.
"The ratings on the show are through the roof. I don't need to boost the ratings," Trump told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "But the country is doing so badly. I wish there was someone in the Republican field I thought would be incredible because that's what we need right now."
If he runs, Trump would follow a well-worn path of wealthy businessmen who have sought the White House before. Recent examples include Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson in 1988, tech mogul Ross Perot in 1992 and publishing executive Steve Forbes in 1996.
Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire New York City mayor, also has hinted at national political ambitions even as he says he won't enter the race.
Trump is prepared to spend as much as $600 million of his personal fortune on the race. "Part of the beauty of me is that I'm very rich," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."
He flirted with presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2000, but never did run.
So what makes the 2012 race any different?
Several political operatives in Washington and elsewhere say privately that Trump has reached out to them repeatedly in recent weeks to learn about the mechanics of running a campaign, asking questions about how much money he would need, what type of an organization he would have to build — and whether he could win.
Publically, Trump has taken several steps to suggest he's not joking.
He delivered a well-received speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee conference last month in Washington. He's done interviews with reporters in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, and is planning a trip in June to leadoff primary state New Hampshire for a presidential candidate's rite of passage — appearing at a political breakfast series called Politics and Eggs. Last week, Michael Cohen, one of his top business advisers who is running a draft-Trump website, met with GOP activists in Iowa.
Some people close to Trump also say they think he just might take the plunge this time.
"I think he's looking at it fairly seriously, and he has the money and liquidity to do it. He'd make a very strong candidate," said Dick Morris, a Democrat-turned-Republican strategist whose father was Trump's lawyer for many years. "He's kind of sui generis, in his own category. He's someone who's accomplished things and won't take any crap."
Republican pollster John McLaughlin said the themes Trump is stressing would find a receptive audience among GOP primary voters.
"He has a message that's resonating: American decline, China rising, and that America needs to turn things around," McLaughlin said. "It's not a politically correct message and it will appeal to Republicans ... and could put him in major contention."
Famously brash, Trump minces few words when talking about his beliefs:
— China "has taken all of our jobs." The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Mideast oil cartel, "is ripping us right and left. ... You're going to see $5 a gallon gas pretty soon."
— Japan, recovering from an earthquake and tsunami and trying to avert a nuclear disaster, has "ripped us off for years" as a trading partner.
— Obama should be pressed to disclose the original birth certificate. "When you look at what happens today, you look at the misconduct, the fraud and forgeries, you really want to see proof," Trump told the AP. Obama was born and grew up in Hawaii, and his 2008 campaign issued a certification of live birth — an official document from the state.
— The "birther" movement has legitimate concerns, Trump told ABC. "The reason I have a little doubt, just a little, is because he grew up and nobody knew him."
Trump certainly has the strong opinions of a candidate.
But would the thrice-married billionaire known for his extravagant hotels and golf courses brave the mundane rituals of retail campaigning and the intense examination his business empire and personal wealth would draw?
"People thinking of running have to file a personal financial disclosure within 30 days of registering with the FEC. Does anyone really think that Donald Trump, under penalty of perjury, would file such a document?" campaign finance lawyer Jan Baran asked.
A candidacy also could present legal troubles given Trump's web of business interests.
While Trump is not formally connected to Cohen's draft effort, he allowed Cohen to use a Trump corporate jet for the trip. Trump booster and billionaire pharmaceutical executive Stewart Rahr paid for the trip, which led to a Federal Election Commission complaint from a supporter of Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul.
Trump, 64, insists he's prepared for the scrutiny.
"I always heard if you're very, very successful, you can't run for high political office — too many victories, fights and enemies," Trump told the AP. "And yet that's what this country needs. We can't have any more of what we're having."
Trump's past could dog him.
His divorce from first wife, Ivana, over his affair and subsequent marriage with actress Marla Maples made him a New York tabloid staple in the 1990s. He's been married since 2005 to Melania Knauss, a former model from Slovenia who is 24 years his junior. His three marriages produced five children, and he has two grandchildren.
He is known for finding ways to inject himself into news of the day. Last summer, for example, he offered to buy the building set to be turned into an Islamic center near ground zero in New York City.
His politics are all over the map.
He mulled an independent White House bid in 2000. He's made political contributions to many Democrats over the years, including New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Last year, Trump gave $50,000 to American Crossroads, a GOP-aligned group that spent millions to defeat Democrats nationwide.
The biggest question facing Trump may be not whether Republican voters will overlook all that. It may be whether he even wants to ask them to.