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The Republicans now face a difficult choice: take Donald Trump seriously and risk turning their party into a joke, or freeze him out and risk the tycoon running a damaging third-party campaign instead, writes

Donald Trump has publically flirted with the idea of running for president for years. He came closest to becoming a candidate in 1999 for the Reform Party founded by another idiosyncratic billionaire, H Ross Perot.

Trump thinks big, as his gaudy skyscrapers and golf resorts show, and he is a world-class self-promoter, so it seems entirely natural that he would want to be the most powerful politician on Earth as well.

Despite what you might have heard, money isn't everything in politics, but it does buy a lot of TV ads, bumper stickers and campaign workers — and those things do tend to attract a few votes. Just as Perot and multimillionaire media baron Steve Forbes effectively bought their way into presidential campaigns in the 1990s, Trump can afford to be in this for the long haul.

While most candidates drop out of the race for the presidency when the money dries up because the voters aren't supporting them, voters or not, Trump won't run out of money. Like Perot, Trump could happily spend $50 million just for the heck of it.

The name recognition Trump has built from decades in the public eye — the over-the-top opulence of his life with ex-wife Ivana in the 1980s, the more recent reality TV shows like "The Apprentice", and the word TRUMP emblazoned in large, often gold-plated letters on just about everything he's built - means voters sure know who he is.

As he announced his campaign for the presidency, Trump declared the American Dream dead, but vowed he was the man to bring it back "bigger and better and stronger than ever before". He sought to make his lack of political experience a virtue, and on foreign policy he was adamant that "no one will be tougher on ISIS than Trump".

Trump declared that all America needs is a "truly great leader". He meant himself, of course.

While Trump's "America! F**k yeah!" braggadocio and bizarre bouffant may make him seem more like a court jester than a potential king, the Republicans now face a difficult choice: take him seriously and risk turning their party into a joke, or freeze him out and risk the tycoon running a damaging third-party campaign instead.

The latter scenario could be the worst-case for conservatives. If, like Ross Perot in 1992, Trump runs a well-funded independent campaign based on his business acumen, he will potentially skim 5 or 10 per cent of voters — and those voters are not likely to come at the cost of Democrats.

Yes, the looming Bush–Clinton rematch could really become a repeat of that earlier contest, with Trump playing the part of Perot — and the Democrat prevailing.

The first test will come as opinion polls absorb both Trump and Jeb Bush's entry into the field this week. Currently Trump sits in about the middle of a crowded Republican field in first-to-vote states Iowa and New Hampshire, but nationally he is below 4 per cent. That matters because media outlets such as Fox News say they will limit televised debates to the top 10 candidates based on their poll numbers. Goodness knows what Trump would do if he is denied a podium on the debate stage — he might well rent a town hall, stage his own talkfest and buy a TV station to broadcast it. Heck, he might just start his own party — the "Donald Trump Best-Ever Political Party in the History of the Whole World Party" and nominate himself for president.

But if, as is more likely, Trump earns a place on that stage when the first candidate debate is held in August, the question then arises — what impact will he have? Will candidates like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker look more serious and sober in contrast, or will they just look like extra passengers in the clown car? Will Donald Trump turn the debates into just another stage for his hollow bragging? Will he push more serious contenders into inflated rhetoric that comes back to bite them?

Either way, it's a safe bet the candidate debates will attract a whole lot more viewers than they would otherwise. Love him or hate him, there is something very watchable about Donald Trump, and this campaign just got a lot more interesting.

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