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Who is Donald Trump: 'Con artist' or political genius?

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump gives a thumb up after a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Sen. Marco Rubio unleashed a barrage of attacks on Republican front-runner Donald Trump at a rally Friday, renewing claims he made during Thursday's debate and offering some new ones.

"It's time to pull his mask off so that people can see what we're dealing with here," Rubio said, calling Trump's campaign "a con job."

"What we are dealing with is a con artist...He has spent his entire career sticking it to little guy."

The negative and contradictory aspects of Trump's background have been reported on before, but his opponents in the 2016 race have rarely challenged him so directly on them.

There is some truth and some exaggeration behind many of the labels pundits, politicians, and Trump himself have tried to apply to him, but voters ultimately see Trump as they want to see him.

Con artist

Rubio has locked onto the "con artist" label, banging the drum on it in interviews, events, and fundraising materials since the debate.

While Trump has built a very successful business and made billions of dollars, he also had many ventures that were not so successful. Whether his failures were con jobs may be open to interpretation.

One example Rubio raised in the debate was Trump University, a real estate program that Trump has been tied up in litigation over for years, including one lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general.

Former students of the university claimed they were misled about Trump's involvement in it and the prospect of meeting Trump himself. His attorneys have denied those claims and pointed to the program's 98 percent approval rate.

One way Trump makes money is by licensing out his name for real estate developers to use, a practice that has caused some confusion, controversy, and legal action.

CNN recently reported on a Florida condominium project that licensed Trump's name and even included a letter from him in its promotional materials, but Trump's company did not own the property. An attorney who purchased one of the condos sued Trump over it and lost.

"Friends do not let friends vote for con artists," Rubio said Friday.

According to Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant, the idea that Trump has been "screwing over the little guy" could gain traction. Trump's supporters might actually see his ability to manipulate others as a positive, though.

"Bill Clinton was seen as a con artist by a lot of people," said Berkovitz, a professor of advertising at Boston University.

"What's Putin? What are some of these foreign leaders who we've got to deal with? They're con artists."

Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said Rubio's line of attack is good start, but "it's not going to dislodge Trump supporters." To win, Trump's opponents need to undermine his vision and the whole idea that he is a successful businessman who will stand up for the average American.

Pointing to spikes in Google searches on topics like Trump University and Polish workers after the debate, he said this probably was new information for many voters. Rubio will now need more examples and riffs on the theme to make it stick, though.

If Rubio can continue to highlight cases where Trump was accused of taking advantage of regular people like his supporters, that could undercut Trump's narrative.

Genius

After taking shots from Rubio and Cruz in Thursday's debate, Trump promised a "big announcement" on Twitter Friday. At a press conference hours later, former candidate Chris Christie endorsed him.

Suddenly, Marco Rubio's brief moment in the media spotlight was overshadowed. CNN covered Trump's press conference and rally live for about two hours.

"He snatched the media narrative away from Marco...Trump's got a 200 IQ when it comes to being media savvy," O'Connell said.

O'Connell also noted that Christie can now be Trump's "pit bull," attacking Rubio for him from now until the Florida primary.

"This is very smart, smart, smart by Trump...Christie will do the dirty work for him."

Trump has repeatedly demonstrated this ability to control a news cycle. He receives far more coverage than any other candidate, and he telegraphed his strategy for doing so decades in advance.

"The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you," Trump wrote in "The Art of the Deal" in 1987.

It works constantly, at times to the amazement of the reporters covering Trump themselves.

Trump often brags about his intelligence and his education. He prides himself on his success in business, and now in politics.

When questioned about his companies' bankruptcies, Trump has said that he took advantage of the law, painting it as a smart business move. At the debate, Rubio argued that the bankruptcies may have left middle class workers unpaid and unemployed.

Liberal

Trump's opponents frequently question his commitment to conservative principles, citing his past statements on social issues and donations to liberal politicians. Based on his support in polls, it does not appear that punch has ever landed.

Sen. Ted Cruz took another swing at it on Thursday night, challenging Trump's willingness to appoint conservative federal judges.

Trump acknowledges that he once supported abortion rights, but he insists he is now firmly anti-abortion. He has also advocated some forms of gun control in the past, but he now says he is the strongest candidate for protecting the Second Amendment.

"You can evolve," Berkovitz said. "It just depends, are you evolving or are you flip-flopping? Flip-flopping is a kiss of death."

For a normal candidate, at least, that is true. Trump's candidacy may subvert that notion. Analysts often say his supporters are driven less by what he says than the way he says it.

"People say there's things that matter more to me than having a con artist as president," Berkovitz said. Trump knows what Republican base voters truly care about, and it is not what he said in a 1999 "Meet the Press" interview.

Ronald Reagan

When asked about these changes in his beliefs, Trump compares himself to President Ronald Reagan, who "evolved" on many issues and became more conservative over the course of decades.

He has also adopted Reagan's 1980 campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," and has applied for a trademark on it. Supporters also often compare the media and establishment's dismissive attitude toward Trump to the way Reagan's critics misunderstood and underestimated him.

"Everybody holds up Reagan" in Republican primaries, Berkovitz said.

"I have a hard time seeing how Republicans connect the dots between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump."

He recalled Reagan offering a more optimistic, positive tone than Trump uses.

However, O'Connell said there are "a lot of similarities."

Both candidates ran largely on a vision rather than policy positions. For Trump, the Reagan resonance may boost him with older voters and the vision itself is appealing to younger voters.

Social media master

Politicians succeed by mastering the communication medium of their time, according to Boston University professor Tom Whalen.

For Franklin Roosevelt, it was radio and for John F. Kennedy, it was television. For Trump, it's Twitter.

Trump has become an overwhelming force on social media, co-opting entire news cycles 140 characters at a time by tweeting out an insult or complaint to his millions of followers that becomes instant fodder for the media.

"He is catnip for the media when it comes to a tweet," Berkovitz said.

O'Connell said part of the reason for Trump's effectiveness is that he was known by most voters before he even ran because of his celebrity status and the "Apprentice" franchise. Trump also seems to understand the current "instant gratification" culture better than most politicians.

Unlike other candidates, whose social media postings appear to be carefully crafted and precisely worded, Trump's are more stream-of-consciousness. They sound exactly like he speaks. He even misspelled words like "honor" and "choker" in tweetstorm aimed at Rubio Friday.

"Donald Trump, man with no filter," Berkovitz said. "Donald Trump [is] saying what a certain portion of the electorate wishes they could say."

According to Berkovitz, Trump revels in stirring up controversy, so he does not need to be as careful about his messaging than other candidates.

"Trump loves trouble," he said. "He thrives on trouble. So all the pitfalls that happen to a regular candidate on social media...for Trump those rules don't always apply."

While other candidates have spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising, Trump's ad budget remains relatively low, in part because he takes advantage of his social media megaphone instead. Instead of slick, professionally edited 30-second spots, he often goes for quick Instagram videos or Facebook clips that simply consist of him sitting at his desk talking to the camera.

Hypocrite

At Thursday's debate, Rubio confronted Trump on the issue generally seen as the billionaire's biggest strength: immigration.

Although Trump rails against illegal immigration, Rubio pointed to a 1983 lawsuit that accused Trump of hiring 200 undocumented Polish workers to help build Trump Tower. Trump claimed the workers were hired by a contractor without his knowledge. The case was settled out of court in 1999.

The New York Times reported this week that Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida brought hundreds of legal foreign workers into the country to fill jobs instead of hiring Americans. Trump said in Thursday's debate that they were seasonal jobs that American workers would not take.

Trump, who has frequently talked about the need to treat veterans better on the campaign trail, has also faced criticism for his efforts to keep veterans from selling items outside Trump Tower.

Much like his history of liberal political views, though, the desire for a president who is a strong, successful outsider has largely driven Trump's supporters to overlook his contradictions.

"They're not buying a position," O'Connell said. "They're buying a vision."

Fighter

Despite his penchant for making false claims, Trump is often seen as the candidate who tells it like it is and never backs down.

"Trump doesn't reverse himself on anything," Berkovitz said.

Conservatives who feel President Obama has been too weak in combating terrorism are impressed by his vow to "bomb the s*** out of ISIS."

Earlier this week, Trump suggested that his supporters boycott Apple because the company will not help the FBI access a terrorist's phone.

Trump has taken a hard line on immigration and terrorism, but he has offered more moderate positions on other issues that defy the Republican Party orthodoxy.

He defended Planned Parenthood's non-abortion services during Thursday's debate and continues to argue that there should be some government program that keeps sick people from dying in the streets.

Trump often boasts that candidates who criticize him drop in the polls, but rivals like Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Jeb Bush were already falling when they really took him on. Rubio's offensive painting Trump as a con man and a fraud may provide a real test of that theory, but as Trump has made quite clear, he will fight back.

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