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Analysis: Donald Trump enlivens a sleepy campaign season

Every presidential campaign has its sideshows, diversions that fill the dead time between primaries, conventions and other meaningful events. Like nature, the political press corps abhors a vacuum.

Rick Santorum’s kinda, sorta endorsement of Mitt Romney ended the speculation over when and whether he would embrace his old nemesis, which had lasted a few fun weeks. The vice presidential handicapping — or “veepstakes,” as some insist on calling it — continues to run rampant, unchecked by reason or the utter uninterest of voters more focused on say, picking up charcoal for the long weekend than whether Bobby Jindal ‘s stock has risen or fallen.

But even that starts to get old.

So who better to enliven this dull period than Donald J. Trump, developer, financier, entrepreneur, raconteur, television luminary, men’s clothing impresario, would-be presidential candidate, Romney surrogate – the list goes on – and a man who could teach P.T. Barnum a thing or two about self-promotion.

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The Romney campaign announced this week that the GOP nominee-to-be will appear next week in Las Vegas alongside Trump and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another erstwhile campaign foe. (Presumably, the event will last longer and involve more Romney-Trump interaction than the last time the two appeared at Trump’s hotel overlooking the Strip, an endorsement session most notable for its brevity and sense that Ann Romney would be ill at any moment.)

In addition, the Romney campaign is raffling a chance for dinner in New York with Trump and the former Massachusetts governor, a stay at Trump’s high-rise Manhattan hotel and -- best of all? — a tour of the “Celebrity Apprentice” boardroom.

Then, just as surely as day follows night and Trump follows an outstretched microphone, controversy arose.

In an interview with the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Trump resurrected the crazy-talk of President Obama being African and not an American citizen, ergo ineligible to be president.

“A book publisher came out three days ago and said that in his written synopsis of his book, (Obama) said he was born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia,” Trump said. “His mother never spent a day in the hospital.”

Democrats were only too happy to jump on this latest iteration of inanity, blasting out emails quoting “Romney’s New BFF” and “Most Important Surrogate.” (The latter referencing a statement by a Trump aide, just as self-effacing as his boss, who told ABC that Trump has been Romney’s “single most significant surrogate.”)

None of this will matter a whit by the time voters do their duty in November.

But it offers an interesting contrast with the blink-and-it’s-over kerfuffle that surrounded the resurfacing last week of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Wright was Obama’s longtime Chicago pastor and spiritual guide. His ties to the candidate became an issue in 2008 after video circulated showing excerpts of his incendiary sermons including, most famously, Wright’s crescendoing “God damn America!” denunciation of the United States. (Or the “U.S. of KKK A,” as he called it in another of his florid phrases.)

Obama quickly severed his relationship with Wright and said he had never heard those kinds of fulminations from the pulpit. Still, his campaign was shaken by the controversy and, while retrospective analyses tend to overstate the prospect of Obama losing the Democratic nomination at that point, there is no question the revelations damaged his candidacy and prolonged Obama’s fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Compare that to the reaction last week after the New York Times outlined a proposed independent expenditure campaign that would have revisited Obama’s ties to Wright in a media blitz timed for the Democratic National Convention this summer. Within hours, Romney had denounced the proposal — conceived apart from his campaign – and the supposed billionaire funder, Joe Ricketts, had also disavowed the effort.

Most telling, while Republicans swiftly distanced themselves from any revival of Wright, Democrats were actively publicizing the story and even seeking to raise money off the plan. (The proposal “shows in vivid and gruesome detail what the president and all of us are up against,” campaign manager Jim Messina said in an email solicitation.)

Like cottage cheese and certain canned goods, it seems political outrage comes with an expiration date.

The Wright controversy “was adjudicated four years ago,” said Republican strategist Don Sipple, back when Americans were just getting to know Obama and character witnesses were welcome, wanted even. But after watching him for 3½ years in the White House, voters have seen enough to make their own judgments, without the need for others to vouch for or vilify the president. Summoning Wright forth at this point “just looks like someone trying to drag it out of the past for political advantage,” Sipple said.

Ah, but Trump! Still fresh. Still topical. Still featured in prime time. And so the Romney campaign was forced Friday to restate the candidate’s acknowledgment that, yes, Obama was born in the United States and, yes, there are more important issues to discuss than fringy questions about his opponent’s origin.

Not that Trump and the birther issue will go away anytime soon. Not with Tuesday’s joint appearance in Vegas and the pending New York soiree still to come.

Perhaps if Rev. Wright had his own reality show?

mark.barabak@latimes.com


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