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The frontrunner in the Republican presidential race is not only a favorite subject of the newspaper tabloids but also their chief competitor in the business of dishing out trash.

Donald Trump has become the master of venom and innuendo that long has been the trademark of "the tabs" that survive in big cities that still have subway strap-hangers devouring their eye-catching headlines. In New York especially, the Daily News and the Post continue in vivid gossip competition.

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Their latest juicy morsel is Mr. Trump's sleazy effort to smear Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over a report in the gossip tabloid National Enquirer of five alleged cases of sexual misconduct, which Mr. Cruz has stoutly denied.

Soon after the allegation, a very unflattering photo of Mr. Cruz's wife, Heidi, surfaced on the Internet, twinned with a striking photo of Trump's third wife, former model Melania. Mr. Cruz blamed Mr. Trump for its appearance and called him "a coward" for dragging Heidi wife into the campaign conversation.

Whereupon Mr. Trump tweeted this comment disavowing any involvement in the Enquirer story: "Ted Cruz's problem with the National Enquirer is his and his alone." Then he added: "and while they were right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards and many others, I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin' Ted Cruz."

That gratuitous allusion to the notorious murder of Mr. Simpson's wife and the former North Carolina senator's sexual peccadilloes was shed by Mr. Trump with crocodile tears, and conveyed under New York tabloid headlines that ever strive more for cleverness than for enlightenment.

The New York Post topped its story with this: "DIRTY TRICKS: Cruz, Trump in Cuban Mistress Crisis." The New York Daily News offered: "Below the Beltway: Cruz trashes tryst report as low blow; Trump: I had nothing to do with it."

Thus does tabloid journalism do its customary thing, and Donald Trump follows with his thing as a tabloid candidate -- reducing his message to slander and implication, while disavowing that he is spreading it with obvious intent to damage.

In a sense, the tactic is a refinement of a standard smear often practiced by the late Richard Nixon. Nicknamed "Tricky Dick" from the start of his political career, the label stuck and was sustained by the Watergate crimes that ended his presidency.

Nixon often would lay some veiled negative comment on a political foe and then add deceptively, "... and I mean that in the best sense." Then he would go on his merry, disingenuous way, applying as the old song puts it, a rubdown with a velvet glove.

Mr. Trump, of course, seldom resorts to indirection. When he wants to disparage or insult, he just goes right at it, as in calling Cruz "Lyin' Ted" and Florida Sen. Rubio "Little Marco."

Indeed, Mr. Trump largely campaigns in tabloid, offering headlines of his proposals rather than detailed expositions of, say, how building that "great wall" on the Mexico border would solve the American immigration crisis. Or, say, how his massive deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants would be accomplished, among all his other back-of-a-napkin brainstorms.

Even when Mr. Trump delivered a rare scripted speech read from a teleprompter, as he did in Washington recently at a conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, he offered as headlines his customary pandering to this stolidly pro-Israel organization. He assured the gathering that his negotiating magic outlined in his best-seller "The Art of the Deal" would keep the Jewish state safe from Iran's nuclear-bomb ambitions.

One has to wonder when voters -- Republican, independent and even Democratic -- will wake up to the fact that the celebrity billionaire, for all his claiming to have a grasp of what it takes to be president, is nothing but a living replica of the glib Andy Griffith film character Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd," with a different gift of gab.

A bit tardily, newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have gotten around to investigating and puncturing Mr. Trump's claims of limitless business success. Considered along with his self-disclosed racial and ethnic bigotry, these disclosures should clearly disqualify him for leadership of a great nation built on democratic principles and verities. But will they?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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