For months, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has focused his campaign on weighty matters like auditing the Federal Reserve and attacking secret government surveillance. So it was another sign of how off-kilter the Republican sweepstakes has become when Paul announced that he was retooling his campaign to combat just one problem–really just one man–Donald Trump. “Unless someone points out that the emperor has no clothes,” Paul explained Aug. 10, “[he’ll] continue to strut about, and what we’ll end up with is a reality-TV star as the nominee.”
Some people may think that is already the case. Despite an uneven performance in the Fox News debate, Trump’s lead in polls appears to be holding. GOP prayers for his departure from the race remain unanswered, and the prospect of his sticking around for at least another few months seems high.
Trump is the dinner guest who will not leave. Brutal questions from Fox News and attacks from rivals only stoke the loyalty of his angry, disaffected supporters. He was snubbed by the Koch brothers this month and denied an invitation to their seaside conference with donors and other hopefuls. The conservative Club for Growth backed five candidates but spurned the developer turned TV personality. Rival campaigns and GOP groups have been shopping opposition research to reporters for weeks, pointing out the many ways that Trump is on the wrong side of Republican orthodoxy. (Among them: he’s been in favor of federal funding of Planned Parenthood, against free trade and for additional taxes on the wealthy.)
Even his mistakes don’t slow him down. On the eve of his RedState candidates forum in Atlanta, influential Tea Party blogger-activist Erick Erickson found out that Trump had accused Fox’s Megyn Kelly of having “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” during the debate. Townhall’s Katie Pavlich and HotAir’s Mary Katharine Ham, both Fox News contributors, told their colleagues they didn’t want to be on a stage that welcomed Trump. Erickson disinvited Trump from the event. “I don’t want my daughter, I don’t want any of the women in the crowd to be there with a guy who if they ask him a tough question, his response is they must be on their period,” he told TIME. Trump claimed he was talking about Kelly’s nose, adding, “Only a deviant would think anything else.”
GOP veterans insist the question isn’t whether Trump leaves the GOP race; it’s when and how. Trump has said he’s keeping alive the option of running as a third-party candidate to maintain “leverage” over the Republican National Committee. But Trump associates say the third-party path is a head fake. Mounting an independent campaign would require Trump to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to get on ballots in 50 states, which would mean an investment of at least double the more than $10 million Trump has earmarked for his candidacy. And despite bragging about his substantial net worth, Trump is famously frugal; he doesn’t employ pollsters or pay for TV ads. Trump confidants don’t believe that he’s willing to spend for a third-party run or, for that matter, that his organization is capable of pulling one off.
In the meantime, there’s no incentive for Trump to go away. As long as he stays in the news, owns the debates and floats at the top of the polls, he’s ahead. He books television interviews and sends tweets to his 3.7 million followers for free, which means he doesn’t need ads, and he was allowed to phone in to four Sunday shows on Aug. 9. “There’s a point at which it won’t work anymore, or just work less,” one confidant predicted.
But not yet. Trump’s campaign announced it will produce policy white papers and beef up his thin staff in the early states. It’s a safe bet that those efforts are mostly for show–but it’s a show he’s getting good at putting on. At the Lincoln Day dinner in Michigan on Aug. 11, Trump hit Jeb Bush repeatedly and said, “It’s going to be an election based on competence.” Then he walked offstage to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
This appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of TIME.