OP-ED: What is The Donald's exit strategy?
Full disclosure: I never thought Donald Trump would formally declare his candidacy.
Nor did I think he would make the required financial disclosure.
And I was sure his asinine comments about John McCain would cause his numbers to tank.
But I was wrong on all three, or what Mr. Trump would call "a loser."
At this stage, even I'm thinking that maybe he was right to have once tweeted: "I can't believe that @CNN would waste time and money with @smerconish — he has got nothing going. Jeff Zucker must be losing his touch!"
Still, I want to quadruple down.
I cannot see him competing beyond the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, which both take place next February — assuming that his name is even on those two states' ballots. Despite his early success, I wouldn't be surprised to see him drop out of competition before votes are cast in either of those states.
Thank goodness I have company.
Stuart Stevens, the chief adviser for the Romney campaign in 2012, recently told Politico Magazine that he was "highly skeptical" Trump would be on either of those ballots.
"The process has no respect for wealth, status or power," Stevens said. "All of that argues, to me, that Donald Trump will use the system to make the points he is making and exit before the parade of judgment days we call elections."
Thursday's debate might hasten Trump's fall if he is forced to offer substance in his responses to Fox News moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. None is a patsy. He might escape a bit longer given that 90 minutes of debating split 10 ways could give him ample opportunity to dodge. Or maybe one of his opponents will engage him in a manner not seen thus far except by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Regardless of the short-term outcome, my view is that he has peaked.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows him holding firm at 20 percent among Republican voters. Impressive in a (now) 17-candidate field, but where is the growth potential? Who are the people who thus far, despite all of his coverage, have opted not to support him but will change their minds? I don't see it, particularly where a full 30 percent — of Republicans — say there is no way they will ever support him.
More likely is that Trump will soon become the first star to fade similar to the fate of Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich in the 2012 election. If I'm right, I doubt he has the resolution of Hillary Clinton in 2008, or the fortitude of Rick Santorum in 2012, to hang on when it's pretty clear the race is unwinnable. The Donald doesn't do second place in anything, much less fifth, sixth or 10th.
What I can't fathom is his exit strategy. There's no way he tanks in the polls or gets thumped at the ballot box, makes a concession speech and goes quietly into the night. This man needs a big finish. Something fitting his ego. It's gotta be grandiose.
Such as when, in the summer of 1992, Ross Perot suddenly withdrew his bid for the presidency. (He resumed the race soon thereafter and placed third with 18.9 percent of the vote.) Perot's stated rationale was that he didn't want the contest to be determined by the House of Representatives, after no winner emerged from the Electoral College. Later came the "true" reason for his withdrawal: Perot said President George H.W. Bush was planning to disrupt his daughter's wedding with a computer-altered photograph.
"I can't prove any of it today, but it was a risk I did not have to take, and a risk I would not take where my daughter is concerned," Perot told "60 Minutes."
Consequently, the bar for withdrawal has been set pretty high by one billionaire for another. What does The Donald say or do to get out?
Here's the best I can come up with for now:
Because the escaped Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman had apparently put a price on Trump's head, he could use the resulting security risk as the reason why he needs to accede to his family's wishes and exit the race. (The tweet attributed to @ElChap0Gusman has been translated as saying this: "Keep f--king around and I'm gonna make you swallow your whore words you f--king whitey milks---tter.")
Or maybe he will soon announce that he will withdraw from the campaign because third wife, Melania, is expecting baby No. 2 — Trump's sixth child and a sibling for older brother Barron.
I know — it sounds crazy. Like saying your opponent is going to disrupt your daughter's wedding.
— Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of "Smerconish" on CNN. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com