Rob Christensen

Is this election cycle the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Show?

This is the silly season for presidential politics, where it is just possible to imagine President Donald Trump gold-plating the White House and President Bernie Sanders setting up soup kitchens on the White House lawn.

Neither is very likely, of course, to win his party’s nomination. But for the moment, they are riding high.

As you may remember from 2012, various candidates had their moment in the sun – from Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza executive, to former Rep. Michele Bachmann, before returning to obscurity.

Trump, the brash, bragging and profane New York City real estate tycoon and television personality, seems an unlikely person to emerge as the leading GOP presidential candidate. But in an age when TV and radio talk shows promote controversial shouting over civil debate, and where the Internet commentary is often toxic, Trump is the man of the hour.

A statewide survey released last week found Trump leading among Tar Heel Republicans with 16 percent, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with 12 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 11 percent. The survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh.

Trump is leading the pack because of his popularity among self-described “very conservative” voters in North Carolina; 66 percent view him favorably while only 24 percent view him negatively, the poll found.

But as GOP strategist Karl Rove noted last week in The Wall Street Journal, Trump’s conservative credentials are somewhat suspect. Between 1989 and 2010, he contributed $314,300 to Democrats including Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid while giving $290,000 to Republicans.

Trump packed them in at the state GOP Convention at the Raleigh Convention Center last month, where he received an enthusiastic reception. Maybe some people like his unfiltered speech: He called both Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio an “ass,” twice used a four-letter word to describe manure, and said most Mexicans coming over the border were drug dealers, rapists or killers. When he made the same remarks two weeks later at his campaign announcement, it stirred up a manure-load of controversy.

While Trump was speaking to the North Carolina GOP, dinner was being served by what appeared to be an all-Latino wait staff. I noticed the angry expression on one waiter’s face who apparently did not agree with Trump’s assessment of Mexicans.

Trump breaks all the rules of politics. Candidates in a democracy are supposed to tell voters about how they understand their lives and how humble they are – so former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton eats at a Chipotle and Walker tells everyone how he worked in a McDonald’s. The Trump speech’s underlying theme could be summarized: How great I am.

The only explanation for the Trump boomlet, longtime Republican strategist Carter Wrenn wrote the other day, was that “some evil genius popped out of a bottle and spewed crazy dust all over Republican voters.”

Sanders momentum

If so, some must be spreading on Democratic voters as well.

How else to explain the rise of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “Democratic Socialist.” Question for Democrats: What has occurred during the past six years that would make you think the country is ready for a major leftward turn?

Sanders has raised $15 million in the first three months and is drawing big crowds in places such as Iowa and Wisconsin. Polls suggest that he is closing the gap in Iowa and New Hampshire, although Clinton still holds a strong lead.

If Sanders should surprise Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton would likely be protected by a Southern firewall, first in South Carolina and then in North Carolina.

Clinton maintains a large lead in North Carolina, although Sanders has closed the gap a bit. Clinton leads Sanders by a still-commanding 55-20 percent margin in the Tar Heel state, according to the PPP poll.

When Sanders campaigned in Raleigh last August, he packed them in at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, showing he has support among white liberals. What would hurt Sanders in the South is Clinton’s strong support in the black community, and his lack of following there.

Clinton has an 80 percent favorability rating among black North Carolina voters compared with Sanders, who has a 41 percent favorability rating, according to the poll.

During her 2008 primary showdown in North Carolina with President Barack Obama, black voters proved Clinton’s undoing. Next year, if she is seriously challenged by Sanders, they could bail her out. Which may be why Clinton will make her first campaign appearance in Raleigh this month.

Christensen: 919-829-4532;

Twitter: @oldpolhack

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