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Donald Trump sinks GOP’s 2016 dream team

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Donald Trump

WASHINGTON — They were supposed to be the dream team.

When the 2016 White House race ignited, the glut of talented, experienced, charismatic, young-but-seasoned and authentically conservative candidates delighted grassroots Republican activists. It was the GOP’s deepest White House field in a generation.

But Donald Trump’s summer surge has stolen the spotlight from these challengers for the conservative crown and left candidates such as Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul struggling for traction.

While their eclipse may yet prove to be temporary, it has raised questions about the political viability of this much-hyped group in the early primary states. The playing field on which the new GOP champions had expected to compete has dramatically shifted — as a new CNN/ORC poll makes clear — and the party’s chaotic presidential battle is deeply volatile just six months before voting begins.

So far in this constantly surprising campaign, it turns out that a political track record, foreign policy expertise, standing in the national party and adherence to conservative values may be less important than harnessing the fierce anti-establishment feeling consuming the GOP grassroots.

The tsunami of anger at party elites lifting Trump and other outsiders — anti-politicians such as Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson — is rendering any connection with the higher echelons of the GOP a liability for now. And Trump’s outsize personality and talent for eviscerating what he sees as America’s dysfunctional political culture has also blunted some of the assets of contenders as diverse as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“Conservatives are really hungry for someone who is outside Washington, somebody who has not been on the treadmill of government, someone who will take on Washington and break up all these old models,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “I think we should move beyond the idea that Donald Trump is a flash in the pan. He is demonstrating that he is a real candidate who has sustained support.”

New poll with Trump still on top

The new CNN/ORC national poll shows the consequences of that revolt.

Trump is now the clear leader of the Republican field with the support of 24% of registered Republicans. Bush is now 11 points behind at 13%. Carson is third, just ahead of Rubio, Walker, Paul, Cruz, Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who are all in single figures.

Carson and Cruz did even better in a Fox News national poll released Sunday, taking second and third place respectively behind Trump. Rubio was in a perilous position for a supposed future champion of conservatism at only 4% — behind former Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina, whose only political experience is a botched California Senate run in 2010.

Trump encapsulated the simple appeal behind his campaign during an interview with CNN’s “New Day” last week, declaring, “I am not a politician.”

Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP race, is seizing on the troubles of Democrat Hillary Clinton to brand herself an insurgent by comparison, seeking to capitalize on anti-Washington feeling roiling the GOP race.

“(Clinton) is the epitome of a professional political class that has managed a bloated, inept, corrupt federal government for far too long,” said Fiorina in a commentary for CNN.com last week.

The quiet style of surging pediatric neurosurgeon Carson is more stealthy than Trump’s bombast, but his warnings that “we shouldn’t let the professional class pick our presidents” helped him climb to second place in a CNN/ORC Iowa poll last week.

The rise of Trump and the gang of outsiders did more than grab the headlines from the promising new class of Republican candidates; the mogul’s stunning rise and sustained run as front-runner has damaged each of their arguments for why they should get the nation’s top political job.

Trump’s coup has all but drowned out Florida Sen. Rubio’s bid to promote himself as the candidate of generational change and as a foreign policy hawk.

Texas Sen. Cruz, despite setting off political pyrotechnics in the Senate against the establishment’s political “cartel,” has found himself overshadowed by the real estate magnate’s seizure of the anti-Washington megaphone.

Wisconsin Gov. Walker, building a campaign based on his appeal to conservatives after winning two elections and a recall in a liberal state, in part by bashing unions, has slipped in the polls as Trump claims he’s left Wisconsin in a mess.

Who needs straight talk from New Jersey Gov. Christie when rants and insults fly from the lips of Trump every day?

And the man once branded by Time magazine as the most interesting man in American politics, Kentucky Sen. Paul, who reached Washington on a wave of anti-establishment anger that predated Trump, has slipped well down the list.

How do professional politicians compete?

So what should these full-time politicians do to slow their charismatic amateur rival?

One option would be to keep their eye on the long game, to trust that historical precedents and the logic of political science will kick in and Trump, Carson and Fiorina, like other candidates taken for an early spin by GOP activists in past elections, will sooner or later fall to Earth.

Bush, who slipped to 5% in the CNN/ORC Iowa survey, insists polls don’t matter this far ahead of the election.

“Last time around, there were candidates that were winning at this point that never even made it to the starting line,” Bush said in Iowa last week.

So far, long-shot GOP contenders have been more willing than top presidential hopefuls to tackle Trump directly.

When Paul released an ad attacking Trump, the front-runner spat back that he was a “nasty, nasty guy” in a weekend New York Times story.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry last month branded Trump a demagogue in an apparent attempt to get some oxygen for his own lagging campaign. Another long shot, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, suggested Monday that the real estate mogul’s “overheated” rhetoric showed he’d been “out in the Iowa sun too long without his hat.”

Christie also chided Trump in an interview with CNN’s “New Day” on Monday, saying his plan to saddle Mexico with the bill for constructing a wall along the border wouldn’t work.

“This is not negotiation of a real estate deal, OK. This is international diplomacy, and it’s different,” Christie said.

Another long-odds candidate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, told CNN on Monday that Trump’s plan was “gibberish.”

The three candidates seen by many analysts as having the best chance to win the nomination, however, have avoided a prolonged clash with Trump. But the time may be coming when they have little choice.

A change in tactics?

Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who worked for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, said Trump’s opponents should be prepared to engage as a way of courting the 75% of the GOP electorate that does not support the real estate mogul.

“You have to go out and draw these contrasts … the other campaigns have to hit back. Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio — they haven’t really hit back and got into a one-on-one right now with Donald Trump,” Madden told CNN.

Bush is still on the fence. The one-time GOP front-runner appeared irritated when asked about Trump’s new immigration plan in South Carolina on Monday. The episode was another sign of how the mogul’s outspoken views on an issue that threatens to tear the GOP apart complicate life for conventional politicians.

“This is not about the big personality in the room … we need to start solving problems instead of saying how bad things are,” Bush said, betraying his frustration with the former reality star’s surge but stopping short of a full-throated attack.

Another candidate hurt by the Trump surge is Walker, who relinquished his position as the front-runner in the Iowa caucuses in the CNN poll.

Walker on Monday tried out an approach of responding to Trump not by attacking him, but by presenting himself as a more fitting vessel for the anti-establishment anger being exploited by Trump.

“I think it is a reflection that people are extremely frustrated with Washington — I have heard that for the last month or two. It is important for us to acknowledge that,” Walker told reporters in Iowa on Monday.

“If people are just angry, they check out — they want somebody who is going to do what they say they are going to do.”

The counterattack by Walker and other top candidates will be tested when they next meet Trump on stage, at CNN’s Ronald Reagan Library debate on September 16. The event will mark a new escalation in the GOP race, and Trump’s rivals in the political establishment will come under pressure to combat his rise.

“We have gotten a look at the horseflesh, how they handle themselves on a big stage,” said Schlapp, who said candidates could best tackle Trump by rolling out their own strong policy platforms and by demonstrating their own qualifications to lead.

“Now we need to see how they handle it when they are really pressed in prime time with all their competitors around,” he said. “What kind of temperament do they have? Do you have reasonable policy positions or is it just a bunch of pablum?”