WASHINGTON -- Real estate tycoon Donald Trump inched closer to a third-party presidential run yesterday, announcing that he was forming an exploratory committee to seek the Reform Party nomination.
The New York developer and casino operator, in the midst of a series of television appearances to promote his latest book, "The America We Deserve," to be published in December, is one of several celebrities who have attracted recent publicity by hinting that they might enter the 2000 race.
Trump, describing his poll numbers as "unbelievable," said on CNN that he was forming a committee to advise him on a possible run. Two national voter surveys have pegged his support at only 7 percent or 8 percent, though a recent poll of Reform Party members showed him running close behind Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who is threatening to join the third party soon.
Trump, 53, said his first choice for running mate would be talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. The two have not talked about it, he said.
The twice-divorced tycoon, with a personal fortune estimated at $1.6 billion by Forbes magazine, has never run for office. Though he briefly toyed with a presidential candidacy in 1987, he's more often seen on the social circuit.
He boasts of his success in attracting beautiful women and famously disdains the elemental currency of politics, shaking hands (it spreads germs). In a recent Wall Street Journal article, he touted his prospective can-do candidacy by pointing to his success in fixing up the skating rink in New York's Central Park.
"I believe nonpoliticians represent the wave of the future, and if elected, I would make the kind of president America needs in the new millennium," Trump wrote. "I would center my presidency around three principles: one term, two-fisted policies, and no excuses."
Dismissed by mainstream politicians as vanity candidates, Trump and other celebrities who have flirted with politics this fall, including actor Warren Beatty, appear to be drawing their motivation from billionaire Ross Perot's 1992 and 1996 presidential tries and, more recently, the election of former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket.
In the process, they are receiving an extraordinary amount of attention from the news media. Trump's face is on the current cover of Newsweek, along with Ventura and Beatty, and he has appeared on at least three network TV programs this week.
"The demand [for Trump] is being generated by a surfeit of time on cable TV chat shows," says independent pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "People won't vote for Donald Trump. Large numbers say, 'No way.' "
Eighty-five percent of those questioned in a recent poll for Newsweek said they were unlikely to vote for Trump, placing him last in a field of 12 actual or potential candidates.
Still, "The Donald" could be influential in the jockeying for control of the Reform Party.
Trump, who had dinner with Ventura in New York last night, may be positioned to become the governor's stalking horse in a feud with Perot's forces over control of the party, which Perot founded. Ventura and Trump met in 1988 at the World Wrestling Federation's Wrestlemania IV in Atlantic City, where Trump is the top casino operator, and have remained friends.
"I see some parallels between Donald Trump and myself," Ventura has said, adding that he would consider backing Trump. Others, however, think Ventura himself will jump into the race.
If Trump runs, he would finance his presidential try largely out of his own pocket. He says he'd spend "as much as necessary" on his campaign, even if that figure turned out to be $40 million.
Buchanan has said the prospect of taking on someone with such deep pockets might force him to reconsider his plan to defect to the Reform Party, which he is expected to announce later this month.
A registered Republican who thinks of himself in the Ronald Reagan mold, Trump could conceivably have an indirect effect on the outcome of the 2000 election, if he were to keep Buchanan from becoming the Reform Party nominee. Many politicians believe Buchanan, as a third-party nominee, could draw draw enough conservative support to damage GOP chances for the White House.
At this point, Trump says the odds that he'll actually enter the race are only 50-50. If Trump decides not to enter the race, that would be fine with Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, who regards the celebrity interlopers as distractions who make it harder for conventional candidates to get their message across to the public.
"I think the voters would like to see the coverage get back to the issues, rather than this story about whether the New York billionaire can beat the former pro wrestler to become the third-party nominee who won't win anyway," says Murphy, an adviser to Republican John McCain.
Pub Date: 10/08/99