Donald Trump has become a must-stop for GOP candidates looking for advice or hoping to bask in the celebrity real estate mogul's star power.
All the major Republican presidential hopefuls have sought an audience with Trump, just months after President Barack Obama dismissed the TV reality show personality as a "carnival barker" for raising debunked questions about Obama's citizenship.
Trump's money and fame as host of "Celebrity Apprentice" are part of the draw for GOP candidates. But Republican strategists say candidates could also learn a lot politically from Trump, whose aggressive criticism of Obama and blunt portrait of the U.S. as a nation in decline have resonated with conservative voters looking for an in-your-face challenge to the president.
"Trump created a position of playing offense and took it right to President Obama and his policies," said John McLaughlin, a GOP pollster who has worked with Trump, who flirted briefly with a presidential bid. "He speaks in plain language about jobs lost at home, and our loss of prestige overseas. He's been forthright and willing to put in a sentence what the average person feels."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the next presidential hopeful scheduled to meet with Trump, on Monday in New York. Texas Gov. Rick Perry dined with Trump earlier this month at a fancy Manhattan restaurant. Sarah Palin, still toying with a potential presidential bid, shared pizza with Trump and his wife, Melania, in Times Square last spring. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann visited Trump's penthouse atop the Trump Tower in July.
Thump even sent a videotaped message to the Faith and Freedom Coalition forum in Florida where all the major GOP contenders spoke Thursday.
"It's very important that we pick the right person. If we pick the wrong person we're going to have four more years of this nonsense in Washington. Obama must be defeated," Trump told the gathering.
Aligning themselves with Trump could help Republicans in a GOP primary because conservatives who make up the base of the party generally cheer him. But candidates risk losing moderates, independents and other general election voters turned off by Trump's crusade against Obama's birth certificate.
The candidates haven't fully embraced the issues Trump champions, like bashing the OPEC oil cartel and demanding that countries like Libya and Iraq repay the U.S. for military assistance. But they've also adopted some of Trump's other themes as well as his blunt tone.
Releasing his 59-point jobs plan earlier this month, Romney echoed Trump's tough talk against China, which Trump has accused of "stealing" U.S. manufacturing jobs through currency manipulation.
"I'll clamp down on the cheaters, and China is the worst example of that," Romney said, vowing as president to order the Treasury Department to designate China a "currency manipulator." Such a designation could trigger trade sanctions against China, a major U.S. trading partner and its biggest foreign lender.
Nearly all the candidates repeated a warning that America's stature is declining in the eyes of the world after Trump cast the U.S. under Obama as a global "laughingstock" and "whipping boy" in a well-received speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee conference last winter.
Perry, in a new campaign video, describes the U.S. as "the least great hope of mankind" and states, "We don't need a president who apologizes for America. I love America."
Pizza magnate Herman Cain has called the U.S. "a nation of crises." Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman says "What we're seeing playing out in America is a human tragedy."
To be sure, not all the rhetoric can be traced to Trump, who is largely echoing the sense of America under siege that has animated many conservatives. But Trump spokesman Michael Cohen, noting the candidates' tone and themes, said "I just wish they would give Mr. Trump the credit now that they're emulating his views."
Trump's reputation was in danger of taking a hit last spring, when he almost single-handedly revived questions about Obama's birthplace and demanded to see the so-called "long form" birth certificate showing the president was born in Hawaii in 1961. Until that point, the so-called "birther' controversy, suggesting Obama had been born outside the U.S. and not eligible to be president, had been promoted by fringe elements of the Republican Party.
Trump's efforts to stoke the issue succeeded in part _ Obama did release his long-form birth certificate after years of refusing to do so, putting the issue to rest for good.
"We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by side shows and carnival barkers," Obama said announcing the release of the birth certificate, a clear shot at Trump.
Obama went even further days later, using his appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner to mock Trump, who was sitting in the audience.
"No one is prouder to put this birth certificate to rest than The Donald. Now he can get to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell?" Obama said. The audience laughed and cheered while Trump glowered.
Beth Fouhy can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bfouhy