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updated 4/19/2011 7:18:45 PM ET 2011-04-19T23:18:45

Out with Sarah. In with The Donald.

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President Barack Obama has launched his re-election bid in a low-key manner, but the Republican Party's search for a challenger seems stranger by the day.

GOP celebrities like Sarah Palin aren't getting much buzz. Mainstream candidates like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty aren't getting much traction. It's people once considered highly unlikely to compete seriously for the party's nomination who are creating big stirs in early voting states, a reflection of an unformed and uncertain GOP presidential field.

GOP activists in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina appear deeply intrigued by, and open to, a run by Donald Trump, the publicity-loving business tycoon and host of NBC's "The Apprentice," even as he perpetuates falsehoods about Obama's citizenship and questions the legitimacy of his presidency.

"I hear more and more people talking about Donald Trump," said Glenn McCall, Republican Party chairman in South Carolina's York County. "He's got people fired up."

Story: Trump: I’m ‘last person Obama wants to run against’

These Republican officials and activists stopped short of saying they see Trump as the eventual nominee. But they said their party is hungry for forceful, colorful figures to attack Obama and other Democrats on health care, spending and other issues.

Onetime fan Trump now not so hot on 'worst president ever'

In Iowa at least, there's also widespread talk about two social conservatives: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who would be the first president elected directly from the House since James Garfield, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost his 2006 re-election bid by a landslide. Even Herman Cain, the little-known, wealthy former pizza chain executive, gets mentioned by Republican voters who will have the first crack at winnowing the GOP field.

'Most wide open field in 50 years'
While these people certainly have talents, the party's establishment does not see them as the likeliest contenders to defeat Obama. Karl Rove, architect of George W. Bush's two presidential wins, calls Trump "a joke candidate."

Republicans traditionally pick party veterans who wait their turn and earn their nominations after years spent as governors, senators or vice presidents. But this field lacks a front-runner like Bob Dole in 1996 or George W. Bush in 2000. There's a political vacuum in the GOP, insiders say, and it's being filled by an unusually large and diverse number of White House hopefuls.

The Donald trumped on abortion question?

"It's probably the most wide open field in 50 years," said Stephen Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member and head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "I'm not sure anyone has caught fire yet."

South Carolina Republican Party chairwoman Karen Floyd said, "It's any candidate's ballgame right now." Kim Lehman, another RNC member from Iowa, said voters haven't locked in on any one person. "Everyone is taking their time and seeing who's who, and what's what," she said.

Palin's apparent fade and Trump's rise are arguably the most surprising events in recent weeks, as more establishment-oriented contenders, including former governors Romney of Massachusetts and Pawlenty of Minnesota, took formal steps toward full-fledged candidacies.

A CNN nationwide poll of adult Republicans showed Trump tied for the presidential lead with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, at 19 percent each. Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, was third at 12 percent.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll, without suggesting names, asked Republican adults to cite a candidate they would support in a GOP primary. Sixteen percent named Romney, 8 percent Trump, 6 percent Huckabee and 5 percent Palin.

Story: Trump plays down Romney's business credentials

In the full survey of Democrats, Republicans and independents, Obama bested all the potential GOP candidates in hypothetical matchups. His margin over Palin was 55 percent to 38 percent.

This early in the race, polls measure name recognition more than anything else. That may help explain strong showings by Trump and Huckabee.

The Arkansas Republican won the 2008 Iowa caucus and hosts a TV show, but has done little to signal he will run again. Trump, meanwhile, is turning heads in early voting states, including Iowa where he's slated to headline the state GOP's summer fundraiser June 10.

'He is causing conversations'
"He is causing conversations," said Trudy Caviness, the GOP chairwoman in Iowa's Wapello County.

McCall said Trump "is saying on the national stage what other people won't talk about."

That includes holding forth on trade, China and oil dependency. But Trump's biggest buzz stems from his embrace of the claim that Obama wasn't born in the United States, and therefore is constitutionally barred from being president.

Documents, including Obama's birth certificate, show he was born in Hawaii in 1961.

Several Republican activists said they don't care much about Obama's birthplace, but they're tired of waiting for the more establishment-backed challengers to challenge the president often and fiercely. For some, Trump fills that void.

For his part, Trump declined Tuesday to back away from the questions he has raised about Obama's citizenship, saying in an interview broadcast on NBC's "Today" show that it's a legitimate subject.

Trump also said he opposes increasing the nation's debt limit, even though experts have said that could cause the government to default on its debts. "I wouldn't raise it," he said. "You're going to have to make a (political) deal someplace. You might as well do it right now. I'd do it right now. I'd stop it right now."

In New Hampshire, Republican activist Phyllis Woods of Dover said she was surprised by the commotion Trump is causing.

"Whether Donald Trump is going to be taken as a serious candidate here is an open question," she said. What is certain, she said, is that "we're going to have a huge field."

Growing support for Bachmann
Woods said she detects "a growing undercurrent of support" for Bachmann, a comment echoed by several Iowa and South Carolina activists. "She is a fresh face and a fresh voice," Woods said.

Story: 2012 presidential candidates 'friend' social media

Bachmann seems to have eclipsed Palin as the most discussed, if sometimes gaffe-prone, provocateur among tea party conservatives.

Democratic strategists and Obama supporters watch these developments with bewilderment, and a vague sense that they won't last. They say they can't predict who will be the nominee, but more traditional candidates such as Romney, Pawlenty or Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour seem more plausible than, say, Trump. Political insiders would not be stunned if Bachmann won the caucus in her native Iowa, and Gingrich could do well in places, including South Carolina.

Not all GOP insiders embrace Trump.

"You've got Donald Trump on TV making a fool of himself," said Leigh Macneil, the Republican chairman in New Hampshire's Merrimack County. Macneil said Trump is filling a regretful vacuum because more mainstream candidates are holding back. "We're looking for people who will step up," he said. He wishes more outspoken, forceful candidates would jump in, especially New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence.

"My dream ticket would be Christie-Pence," Macneil said.

Others seem happy with their choices.

Video: Trump a celeb, Romney serious: Roundtable on 2012 (on this page)

"It's a wide open field," and that's fine, said Kathy Pearson, a longtime party activist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She said Trump is "a TV celebrity and obviously a successful businessman" who is "saying what he thinks."

"What's going on right now is very good, very healthy for the process," said Cindy Costa, South Carolina's Republican National Committeewoman. Voters want "someone who is a good leader and understands business." She has long admired Romney, she said, and "I've been pleasantly surprised" by Trump. "He's actually more conservative than I had thought."

Story: Likely GOP contenders plot Tea Party strategies

Trump's three marriages don't seem to be a major issue among conservatives, for now at least.

"All his ex-wives are happy," said Joni Scotter, a Republican activist from Marion, Iowa. Ordinarily, she said, GOP caucus voters "are hard on people who are divorced."

She said she hopes the thrice-married Gingrich receives the same generosity.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Trump: 'I don't see myself as having failures'

  1. Closed captioning of: Trump: 'I don't see myself as having failures'

    >>> good evening. while it's early yet and there are no established candidates on the gop side, donald trump is running first or second in a lot of the early polls. he is among the best-known names in this country, in part because that name is all over the place, on everything from buildings to tv shows on this network. trump 's message in large part is that he could do in government what he has done in business. and tonight we have a look at some of what he's done in business, including some who have reason to doubt that trump name. we begin tonight with the reporting of nbc news national investigative correspondent michael isikoff . living in america

    >> reporter: donald trump says he's a fantastically successful billionaire businessman and would make a good president.

    >> i have built a great company. i've done a great job. i put a lot of people to work.

    >> reporter: but a closer look at trump 's business records also shows high-profile bankruptcy filings, multimillion-dollar real estate deals that went sour, and a trail of ongoing lawsuits accusing trump of deceptive business practices .

    >> the only thing that's brilliant about donald trump is his ability to get publicity and to promote himself. in that way he's a contemporary p.t. barnum .

    >> i don't think i exaggerate any more than anybody else. and it's interesting. it then becomes successful and everybody says, oh, what a great salesman he is. he's the greatest salesman on earth. excuse me. don't i have to build it? don't i have to get the zoning? don't i have to get the financing? don't i have to do all these things?

    >> reporter: trump owns luxury properties all over the world and makes millions licensing consumer products . he's a brand name and a tough boss. trump rules on his hit show, "the apprentice," now in its fifth season on nbc.

    >> and gary, you're fired.

    >> reporter: but some critics say his own management should have gotten him fired. trump hotels and casinos in atlantic city filed for bankruptcy protection three times. they've since emerged from bankruptcy. his name still on them. trump argues competition and rough market forces were responsible and others were in control.

    >> wait a second. you were chairman of the board.

    >> excuse me.

    >> you were chairman of the board.

    >> i was chairman, but i didn't run the company. i had nothing to do with running the company. management --

    >> you were paid $2 million a year --

    >> excuse me. i didn't run the company. i'm just telling you.

    >> so what were you paid $2 million a year for?

    >> excuse me. because of my genius. okay?

    >> reporter: many of trump 's real estate projects are actually owned by others, who license the right to use his name. consider trump tower tampa, a 52-story luxury condominium that trump personally showed up to endorse in 2005 .

    >> i've had great luck in florida or whatever you want to call it. you could call it luck. you can call it talent.

    >> reporter: the project looks spectacular but never got off the ground. resulting in a tangled web of lawsuits, including one by more than 30 condo buyers.

    >> donald trump left us high and dry .

    >> reporter: elaine lucadano says she lost her $45,000 investment.

    >> the dream turned into a nightmare for us unfortunately. the building was never built. mr. trump took off on us when times got tough. he misled us into thinking that he was a partner in this entire project when actually he was just a licensor.

    >> reporter: trump disputes the allegations, and in this deposition again blamed the market.

    >> to be honest with you, they were better off the building wasn't built.

    >> don't make it like a big deal . they put down a deposit on condominium building --

    >> and they lost.

    >> excuse me. and they paid a lot of money for it because the market was good. had the building been built they would have never closed because the units would have been worth like everything else in florida, nothing to do with me --

    >> reporter: then there's trump university . no actual campus or degrees. but students, some of whom are now suing, plunked down up to $35,000 for seminars.

    >> we're going to teach you about business. we're going to teach you better than the business schools are going to teach you.

    >> 97% approval rating from the people that went there.

    >> reporter: but last year new york state regulators demanded trump stop calling it a university. and he did. and the texas attorney general 's office opened an investigation into possible deceptive trade practices. which was dropped after the school stopped doing business in the state.

    >> why did you call it a university?

    >> because we didn't know there was any rules or regulations about using the name university. we didn't --

    >> you didn't check that out?

    >> i think probably they felt that we would have qualified. if we didn't qualify, that's fine. we changed the name.

    >> as you take a step back from all this, i mean, if somebody were to say what have you learned from your successes, what have you learned from your failures that are relevant to considering you as a possible president?

    >> well, first of all, my successes, and i think you will attest to this, have been vast. i don't even view myself as having failures, and i certainly learn from things that don't work out as well.

    >> reporter: i also pressed trump about the birther issue, which has gotten him traction in the polls. brian, when i spoke to hawaiian officials, they said trump 's charges that president obama is concealing information about his birth are ludicrous and that the records in state files are completely consistent with the certification of live birth that he's already released. i asked trump today if he thought hawaiian officials are lying, and he didn't answer the question.

    >> all this while he still says he's mulling an official run. michael isikoff , our national investigative correspondent, thanks.

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