Donald Trump has what every presidential wannabe craves: very deep pockets, universal name recognition and a ready-made campaign slogan. Imagine Trump telling President Obama, "You're Fired!"
In recent weeks the brash businessman has made all the moves of someone mulling a White House run, from granting interviews to the political press to giving a red-meat speech in Washington. On Monday, Trump even dispatched an aide to huddle with the state Republican chairman in the presidential proving ground of Iowa.
So, will the leader of the Trump Empire really try to become the leader of the Free World?
"He's one of the great hucksters, and I say that admiringly. He's using this idea of running, milking it, for all it's worth -- and it's worth a lot," said former New York City mayor Ed Koch.
"It keeps his name out there, which he is very happy to do. There's nothing wrong with it, nothing immoral. But he's not running. He knows it. Everyone else knows it," Koch said.
Trump insists he's serious, but experts in branding and politics are dubious, saying the art of this deal for The Donald is simple: gaining favorable exposure.
It's not that he needs fame. Trump already is one of the most well-known people on the planet. Rather, they said, flirting with an idea of a presidential campaign helps to burnish the Trump name, the foundation of his business.
The importance of that name is clear from his company's Website, which promotes an expanding galaxy of Trump-named products from condominiums, casinos and golf courses, to chocolates, neckties, eyewear, tea and even a bottled water, Trump Ice. "Welcome to the World of Trump, the global superbrand," the Website proclaims.
Trump's "business is his own persona, and the brand he can build around that persona," said Jacob Cohen, a senior strategist with the branding firm of Wolff Olins in New York.
"He's got the image of someone who's going to make the big move, going to make the big statement. … It's being true to his brand to have that ambition, to seek that attention, that role of being president," Olins said.
Adds Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business: "Trump is in the business of celebrity. He's famous. He's an iconic figure. ... Awareness of his brand, hopefully a positive awareness of his brand, is his business. Trump exploring running for president, if he doesn't make a mockery of it, only adds to the celebrity and the positive associations."
Trump previously pondered a presidential bid in 1988 and again in 1999, when he actually tested a possible candidacy atop the Reform Party's ticket. He made a 12-hour campaign-style swing through Miami, his stiletto-wearing model-girlfriend Melania – now his third wife – at his side. After follow-up trips to Los Angeles and Hartford, Conn., Trump dropped the idea.
The flirtation this time around includes a YouTube channel and a glitzy Website, shouldtrumprun.com.
"Are you one of the many frustrated Americans sick and tired of hearing the same old mundane political campaign promises?" the website asks. "Empty promises echo across the nation every four years; stringing us along as we wait for something good to finally happen. Well it is finally here, and it is real. It is DONALD J. TRUMP."
Trump says if he runs in 2012, it would be as a Republican. If he does, the past positions he has taken would create almost insurmountable obstacles to winning the party's nomination.
Trump now says he's against abortion rights, but in his 2000 book, "The America We Deserve," Trump wrote, "I support a woman's right to choose."
In the same book, he also staked out positions on gun control that clash with GOP orthodoxy. "The Republicans walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions," he wrote. "I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun."
Trump also has switched party affiliations, at one time registering as a Republican, a Democrat and an independent, according to the New York Daily News. In 2009, he switched back to Republican.
"It's all perfectly legal, but the party base probably isn't going to like it. They'll naturally ask, 'Will he change again if elected?' " said Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
Trump's record of campaign donations also would be problematic. Although he has given generously to Republicans, he also has contributed more than $150,000 over the years to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates, including such Republican bête noirs as Hillary Clinton, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), campaign finance reports show.
As recently as January 2008, the records show, Trump made a $25,000 donation to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the political operation that worked to keep the chamber in Democratic hands under Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
"In politics, only a fool automatically rules out anything. But it really is hard to imagine how Trump gets the GOP nomination. But that could simply be my failure of imagination," Sabato said.
The Reform Party's former national chairman Russ Verney met Trump a couple of times in 1999 as Trump pondered a Reform Party bid. "In fact, my wife and I were his guests Mar-a-Lago for a weekend," he recalled, referring to the Trump country club in Palm Beach, Fla.
Verney said he was "personally convinced that he (Trump) was sincere in his desire to run in 2000."
But, he added, "There was certainly no doubt in my mind that whatever exposure he got" helped Trump's business dealings. And what of Trump's musings this time around? "He is all about his brand," Verney said. "Whatever he does will turn out to his advantage."