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The Strength Of Donald Trump Faces First Test

In just four days Trump will learn if the thousands of Iowans who have filled gyms and auditoriums in recent weeks are voters or just fans.
Image: Donald Trump in South Carolina
Donald Trump speaks to the crowd at a campaign rally January 27, 2015 in Gilbert, South Carolina. Sean Rayford / Getty Images

Donald Trump is about to test his popularity.

In just four days, the billionaire businessman, who hosted a popular reality TV show for 11-years, will learn if the thousands of Iowans who have filled high school gyms and college auditoriums in recent weeks are voters or just fans.

Trump has cooked up a highly unusual campaign: part politics, part theatrics, and part media-bashing.

At his rallies, “media bashing” has been highly popular as the audience cat-calls reporters in attendance. “They’re scum,” Trump said, pointing to the media sitting in the back of the filled-to-capacity Central College auditorium in Pella, Iowa last Saturday. “They’re bad people, they really are,” he added. The audience broke into laughter.

The new twist, just days before the Iowa Caucus, a doubling down on Trump’s image as the political “outsider.”

Center stage: Trump’s renewed fight with FOX News and host Megyn Kelly. Not only does this feud dominate the news cycle yet again, but perhaps just as critical, Trump is using it to redefine FOX News, as yet one more “mainstream media” outlet.

It’s a gutsy and calculated call by Donald Trump to lump FOX News and its conservative presentations in the same category as all other media, says University of South Florida Political Science professor Susan MacManus.

“The very people who support Trump hate the media and now FOX News is becoming part of the very media they hate.”

Prior to a pro-Trump event in Gilbert, South Carolina Wednesday, Fox News watcher Jim Yates shared his view on the verbal brawl. “There’s an old saying, the media is your enemy,” said the 69-year-old former Vietnam combat medic, now a retired tool and die engineer. This battle with FOX News he says is great because “he’s taking them on.”

MacManus, who has analyzed the last 6 presidential elections, says some of those at Trump rallies have shown up precisely to say ‘I was there. I saw him in person. He's a celebrity and I loved his TV show. Here's a selfie of me in the crowd.’ But I am not sure those fans will actually turn out to caucus,” she says.

And while the polls continue to show Trump as the favored Republican, some long-time observers warn those polls have a double edge.

MacManus says, "Polls may affect the caucus turnout as Trump's supporters, who are new to the political scene, may say 'no need to no worry, no need to caucus, my guy is going to win anyway. My one vote won't make much of a difference.' "

Trump readily tells supporters that he too is still learning politics, but to some it appears he may also be schooling the political establishment on a new way to run a Presidential campaign. He’s not the first to turn his back at the last minute on a debate, but blaming the change in schedule on moderator Megyn Kelly is a rare twist.

A self-styled "outsider" who doesn't prepare a written speech and has no Teleprompter, Trump is nonetheless clearly calculated.

Take the stagecraft at his rallies. Rarely will you find someone nodding off during his speeches.

That’s because the audience is part of the show that is the Donald Trump campaign.

Trump's team has found a secret elixir that engages supporters. Crowds are told before each rally to surround any protester who jumps up. They're told to then chant "Trump! Trump! Trump!"

“Don't touch the protesters,” the crowd is instructed.

They're to hold up Trump placards.

At times, the entire rally of thousands joins in the chant.

Eventually, the protester is escorted out and what follows is a huge cheer and lots of laughter.

Rarely has a political event been this participatory.

Protesters with signs that say things like "Iowans love Muslims" are in effect the extras on this Trump show.

They are unwittingly cast as actors who provide not only comic relief but also a way to unify the crowd.

The question is: are fans giving Trump high "ratings" also caucus goers/voters?