Image: Rick Perry
Craig Ruttle  /  AP
Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry arrives at Trump Tower in New York for a meeting with real estate developer Donald Trump, Sept. 14, 2011.
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updated 9/26/2011 4:35:50 PM ET 2011-09-26T20:35:50

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.

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"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 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 made the pilgrimage Monday, meeting with Trump for 45 minutes at his office. 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.

Another contender, Godfather's Pizza founder Herman Cain, is scheduled to meet with Trump next Monday.

Story: Doubts about Perry among some in Republican Party

Thump even sent a videotaped message to the Faith and Freedom Coalition forum in Florida where all the major GOP contenders spoke last week.

"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 Democratic National Committee seized on Romney's meeting with Trump, posting a web video casting both as rich like-minded businessmen who would slash government programs that help the middle class. Trump, for his part, called himself a "much bigger businessman" than Romney, who made millions at the Bain Capital investment firm.

"Mitt Romney is a basically small-business guy, if you really think about it. He was a hedge fund. He was a funds guy. He walked away with some money from a very good company that he didn't create. He worked there. He didn't create it," Trump told CNN's Candy Crowley last spring when he was still considering a run for the GOP nomination.

Cain upsets Perry at Florida Straw Poll

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." Such a designation could trigger trade sanctions against China, a major U.S. trading partner and its biggest foreign lender.

Story: Doubts about Perry among some in Republican Party

Nearly all the candidates repeated a warning that America's stature is declining in the eyes of the world after Trump cast the U.S. under Obama as a global "laughingstock" and "whipping boy" in a well-received speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee conference last winter.

Perry, in a new campaign video, describes the U.S. as "the least great hope of mankind" and states, "We don't need a president who apologizes for America. I love America."

Cain has called the U.S. "a nation of crises." Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman says "What we're seeing playing out in America is a human tragedy."

To be sure, not all the rhetoric can be traced to Trump, who is largely echoing the sense of America under siege that has animated many conservatives. But Trump spokesman Michael Cohen, noting the candidates' tone and themes, said "I just wish they would give Mr. Trump the credit now that they're emulating his views."

Republicans not sold on candidate choices

Trump's reputation was in danger of taking a hit last spring, when he almost single-handedly revived questions about Obama's birthplace and demanded to see the so-called "long form" birth certificate showing the president was born in Hawaii in 1961. Until that point, the so-called "birther' controversy, suggesting Obama had been born outside the U.S. and not eligible to be president, had been promoted by fringe elements of the Republican Party.

Trump's efforts to stoke the issue succeeded in part — Obama did release his long-form birth certificate after years of refusing to do so, putting the issue to rest for good.

"We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by side shows and carnival barkers," Obama said announcing the release of the birth certificate, a clear shot at Trump.

Obama went even further days later, using his appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner to mock Trump, who was sitting in the audience.

"No one is prouder to put this birth certificate to rest than The Donald. Now he can get to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell?" Obama said. The audience laughed and cheered while Trump glowered.

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

Video: Perry, Trump dine in New York City

  1. Closed captioning of: Perry, Trump dine in New York City

    >> if a picture is worth a thousand words , what is rick perry hoping to get from this moment. the republican front -runner met up with donald trump in new york city . what kind of boost is he hoping to get from this moment? joining me now, news deputy director mark murray . a lot to talk about here. let's get to that. what does rick perry want from that moment?

    >> he tapped into something. he was a flawed potential candidate for president and decided not to run. donald trump tapped into something that was a visceral dislike of president obama . we saw sarah palin meet with donald trump and rick perry 's meeting with trump is not as impactful as the endorsements he got from bobby jindal or nevada governor brian sandoval , being able to get people on your side in what's turning interest a rick perry versus mitt romney contest, we want people to be on your side.

    >> is it about tabbing into an anger moment there? rick perry produced his points of why people should not support the president and he is backed by the tea party or at least some of it already.

    >> it is simplistic, but you are trying to see rick perry own the tea party and own everything that donald trump and sarah palin and others have not been able to touch. he becomes the candidate for country clubs and big business and rick perry owns everything else. that's maybe what they are trying to go at. i would say overall they are bigger endorsements he wants in addition.

    >> he wanted everyone to see that. they did not try to keep it low key . he implied that the experience of that meeting with donald trump . michele bachmann who was on "hardball," they had comments about her and the controversy. let's play what was said.

    >> there is no empirical data other than a woman coming up to her. mrs. bachman is an emotional person who has great feeling for people and i think that's what she was trying to project. she would have been better if she stayed on the issue which was the governor's executive orders and he made a mistake and she did. the quicker she admits it and moves on, the better she s.

    >> that's ed rollins . we have not heard congresswoman bachman admit in a manner that she made a mistake, mark.

    >> in that interview that was on "hardball" last night was damaging to michele bachmann . chuck todd spoke on daily run down this morning. i'm no longer the campaign manager and no longer getting paid, but giving advice. it seems as though ed rollins going on air is not bringing michele bachmann into a positive light. while it wasn't a super direct criticism, i disagree with the way her campaign is handled. that so far. great seeing you.

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