NEW YORK - 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."