The 'Celebrity Apprentice' host is convincing some that he's a viable contender for 2012

Remember when the John McCain campaign called Barack Obama a ”celebrity” during their 2008 presidential battle? Back then, it seemed like a stinging personal attack. How times have changed. These days, being a celebrity is practically an essential qualification for anybody considering challenging Obama for the White House in 2012. Sarah Palin had a show on TLC. Mike Huckabee has one on Fox. Even Newt Gingrich is now as much a TV personality as a politician.

And then there’s Donald Trump, the 64-year-old host of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice, who over the past month has done more than anyone to turn the next presidential race into the biggest, trashiest reality show set in the political world since The Real Housewives of D.C. Smash-cut to last week’s episode recap, in which the Donald feuded with Jerry Seinfeld after the comedian — upset by Trump’s bombastic proclamations about President Obama’s birth certificate — reneged on a long-scheduled appearance at a charity event hosted by Trump’s son Eric. ”Jerry feels this sort of demagoguery has no place in public discourse,” a Seinfeld rep explained in a statement. Trump fired back in an open letter to Seinfeld. ”I agreed to do, and did, your failed show, The Marriage Ref, even though I thought it was absolutely terrible,” wrote the man who is currently leading in the polls as the Republicans’ choice to run against Obama. ”Despite its poor ratings, I didn’t cancel on you like you canceled on my son…” Ohhh, snap!

Nobody’s tossed a glass of wine into anybody’s face — though, after Trump’s Fox & Friends rant against left-leaning Robert De Niro, we’re guessing the Raging Bull might like to — and there haven’t been any hot-tub scenes, but still. This sort of stuff seems more suited to VH1 than C-SPAN. Or perhaps not. ”High drama. Conflict. Competition. Strong opinions. Colorful characters. By their natures, politics and reality TV have very similar elements,” notes Arthur Smith, who ought to know, having produced more than a thousand hours of reality programming (including Trading Spaces, Hell’s Kitchen, and Paris Hilton’s upcoming show on Oxygen). Trump’s popularity may be growing, but it seems plenty of voters have doubts about his ability to do the actual job. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 31 percent of Republicans say he would make a ”poor” or ”terrible” president.

Of course, like all reality shows, this one is partly fake. Maybe mostly. It’s still entirely possible that Trump’s presidential maneuverings are all a gigantic media prank. His suddenly super-conservative views seem manufactured to grab attention, and have almost no connection to his past beliefs. He’s changed positions on abortion, gay rights, and universal health care (in 2007, he donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign). Even some executives at NBC doubt his sincerity. ”If he wants to spout off about things, we’re happy to let him,” one told EW last week. ”But our inclination is that he’s not serious about running for president. We think it’s a stunt.”

A stunt that’s clearly working. Turning himself into a Tea Partier has done more than raise Trump’s standing in the polls. It’s also helped boost ratings for The Celebrity Apprentice, which climbed by 6 percent in the month after Trump started bloviating about politics. The show this season is averaging 8.9 million viewers a week, close to double the audience of last fall’s regular Apprentice. It’s obvious that Trump’s presidential sideshow has reinvigorated the franchise. In fact, NBC is so invested in The Celebrity Apprentice, the network granted Trump’s unusual request to carve out a portion of the May 22 season finale for a political announcement. No, Trump won’t be revealing whether he’ll be running for president. Instead, he’ll supposedly be revealing the future date upon which he’ll be announcing whether he’s running for president. Does this guy know how to do a cliff-hanger or what?

The Apprentice
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