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Trump In Triumph: The Man Who Wasn't Welcome In The Game Takes Home The Prize

Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, arrive to speak to supporters at Trump Tower in New York following his victory in Indiana Tuesday. Improbably, Trump is now assured of being the GOP nominee.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, arrive to speak to supporters at Trump Tower in New York following his victory in Indiana Tuesday. Improbably, Trump is now assured of being the GOP nominee.

Donald Trump, the man who would not run, could not be taken seriously and could not win, is the apparent nominee of the Republican Party.

The office in question is the presidency of the United States.

One year ago, supposedly knowledgeable people thought the Manhattan real estate billionaire and reality TV star with the preposterous persona and soap-opera personal life was kidding. He had flirted with candidacies before, as far back as the 1980s, teasing at running for governor, senator and even president. Each time, he got whatever attention he was seeking at the moment — and moved on.

It was shtick, we told ourselves. We'd seen it before.

Not this time. This time, Trump filed his papers, popped up on top of the polls in the summer of 2015 and leapt onstage to debate the other GOP hopefuls. His megawatt personality immediately became a magnet for viewers on TV, as did his brow-beating battles with rivals and news moderators.

And when there were no debates, Trump was still everywhere on-screen. He appeared on Sunday morning political chat shows weekly from November to April. He dominated Twitter on a daily-nightly basis. He defined not only the terms of debate but the monikers by which people thought of other candidates ("Lyin' Ted," "Little Marco," "Low Energy Jeb").

He reinvented himself in the media and in the public mind. Efforts to link him to his past lifestyle, his marriages and affairs, his bullying business tactics and his contradictory positions were all, by and large, unavailing. One by one, the better-known and respected senators and governors (Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Bush, Rubio) fell by the wayside.

And today, after a long run of victories in midsize and megastates, Trump stands alone. Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the last hurdles standing (or wobbling) between Trump and the goal line, have thrown in the towel. The proximate cause was a wipeout Trump win in Indiana — a state where Cruz once led in the polls and that has a long border with Kasich's Ohio.

Today the history of the GOP moves to another phase, and the #NeverTrump forces face a historic choice. Some have said they are now #NeverEverTrump. But Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has gone the other way.

The Priebus message, echoed by others in the party, is this: We couldn't stop him; it's going to be The Donald, so deal with it.

The GOP's Potential Down-Ballot Problem

That may be the best course for many Republican incumbents at various levels. They need to refocus the national political imagination on the binary choice this November, both for the White House and the Congress and statehouses. But the choice will be excruciating for the party's Senate incumbents seeking re-election in blue or purple states.

Republicans in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire are no better than even bets for re-election. The party is also defending vacant seats in Florida and Indiana. There are question marks elsewhere in swing states. But no one is sure whether more is gained by distancing the incumbent from the nominee, embracing him — or trying to get away with a bit of both.

Suffice it to say no Republican has faced quite this pointed a dilemma in recent memory — if ever. Trump's unfavorable number, now in the mid-60s, might be an argument for staying at arm's length. But those who like him are voters every Republican needs on Election Day.

Unknown Unknowns

There is also the problem of the unknown. In the past, ascending to be the apparent nominee has added stature to contenders who have been seen grubbing for votes in diners and hog barns for months. In Trump's case, he has eschewed those rituals while pursuing a big-rally and all-screens strategy. How will he fare when the dynamic changes, and he has no field of pursuers to dominate? How will his planned barrage against the Clintons be received?

We have seen Trump take a series of turns already.

He may have made his first turn toward more consequential political combat in 2009, when he intruded on the "birther" conspiracy, questioning President Obama's birthright citizenship and eligibility for the White House. Even after the long-form birth certificate was produced and the controversy dispelled, Trump kept at it. Polling showed him with a following, whether from this episode or his TV programs or his decades of notoriety in the tabloids.

The president retaliated with a series of humorous putdowns, either directly or indirectly aimed at Trump. At a White House Correspondents' Dinner he mocked the level of decision-making Trump had faced on Celebrity Apprentice. On another such occasion, Obama said "Donald Trump is here ... still."

Some believe that public shaming had something to do with Trump's change of heart about running for office.

Will He Still Be Teflon Don In A General Election?

In any event, his first campaign in earnest did not always go smoothly. His controversial remarks about John McCain's time as a prisoner of war, about Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly and about a handicapped reporter marred his early weeks. But thereafter, having weathered the storms of protest over these incidents, Trump built up a kind of immunity — at least as pertained to his followers.

He himself remarked that he could "shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue" and his backers wouldn't care. Conservative commentators lined up against him in the nation's leading newspapers and magazines. Even more important, it would seem, was the opposition of radio talk show hosts — a potent element in hard-right media in local and statewide media for decades. These hosts overwhelmingly preferred Cruz.

In February, Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, largely on the strength of evangelical voters. But overnight Trump had transformed his loss into a controversy over tactics allegedly used by the Cruz campaign to shoulder aside Ben Carson, the famed brain surgeon. (Carson would eventually endorse Trump.)

In a breakthrough, Trump won New Hampshire in a landslide and raced through most of Super Tuesday, even splitting the evangelical vote with Cruz, who posed himself as religious liberty's ardent champion.

Alarmed, many in the Republican establishment tried to take Trump down. Mitt Romney, the party nominee just four years ago, delivered a blistering critique in a news conference broadcast nationwide. It seemed a body blow, yet it appeared to have no measurable effect.

Weaker in the caucus states, where long processes favored activists devoted to Cruz, Trump stormed back in the more populous states that held primaries. In March, he held his own in the Bible Belt. And in April, after absorbing a setback in Wisconsin, he stormed back to dominate across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

At this moment, most polls and prognosticators say Trump is likely to lose to Clinton in November. But that is six months away. We should all reflect on what we thought we knew about Trump's trajectory six months ago.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for