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Soon the real voting starts

After more than a year of poll-gazing of all varieties, the real 2016 presidential campaign year has arrived, with Donald Trump still far ahead in the Republican nomination race and the surviving contenders still at a loss on how to bring him down.

Some, including Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie, have finally thrown caution to the winds with personal assaults and/or television ads trying to out-Trump the loudest mouth in today's politics. It has been no contest so far and may well remain so.

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Mr. Trump, the most odious celebrity candidate yet to inflict his charms on the electorate, after months of stirring the public's anger against politicians and politics itself, still feeds off the same anger while barely spending a nickel of his own. Every knock against him by the others is a boost, as the anti-Trump effort itself generates more and more free publicity for him.

Mr. Trump at first vowed he didn't need to run television ads, in part because the new phenomenon of social media has kept his combative rhetoric dominating both newsprint and the airwaves. But now he has a TV ad recycling many of his rants, reminding voters of why they like him without shedding much substance on his agenda to "make America great again."

For all the confidence he has placed in his ability to lure voters to the approaching Iowa caucuses, he may appreciate the need for the traditional political boots on the ground, cajoling Iowa Republicans to brave the fierce Hawkeye winter and turn out on caucus night Feb. 1.

That evening, followed eight days later by the New Hampshire primary, will mark the first time in the long nominating process that actual voters have to put their bodies, voices and support on the line for him.

In 1976, another presidential candidate, Democratic Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, also a charismatic figure but one who relied on humor rather than vitriol, learned quickly of the voters' fickleness. After losing the New Hampshire primary that year, his public comment was succinct: "The voters have spoken -- the bastards!" He ran second behind Jimmy Carter by only six percentage points and eventually dropped out.

Today's Republican rivals to Mr. Trump may well share the sentiment, though not quite in the joking way Udall, who later wrote a book titled "Too Funny to Be President," expressed his disappointment.

The irrefutable fact is that Donald Trump, for all his supposed inexperience in politics and his abhorrence of the way it has been practiced for many years, has so far managed to stand the traditional approach on its head. He is not the first populist demagogue to stir public anger, fear and hate in the land.

In 1968, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace ran for president as a third-party candidate, feeding off voter discontent in much more blatant terms as a defender of racial segregation. But he also campaigned as a would-be champion of the working man, drawing large and noisy crowds as he stumped across the industrial Midwest.

The Wallace campaign often took on an ominous atmosphere with the feisty bantam rooster Wallace repeatedly singling out Northern reporters for verbal abuse, just as Mr. Trump has made them figurative punching bags at his rallies this time around.

In the end, however, Wallace won states only in the Deep South, garnering 13.5 percent of the popular tally and 45 electoral votes.

Mr. Trump has much more than racial dissatisfaction to tap into to gain the Republican nomination. He goes into the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire primary eight days later with a convincing lead. After that, there will be a longer course running through numerous other state contests in March and beyond. Unless the GOP establishment settles on an alternative to stop him -- and none is yet clearly in sight -- it's unclear who or what will stop the Trump phenomenon.

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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