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NAJEE’S NOTES: Don’t count Donald Trump out already

Donald Trump is the last man standing in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. I guess hell is freezing over down there.

Trump assumed control of the Republican Party May 4 as its presumptive presidential nominee after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich exited the race, moving swiftly to consider vice-presidential prospects and plan for what is expected to be a costly and vicious six-month battle for the White House against Democrat Hillary Clinton, who has all but virtually clinched the Democratic nomination.

I have spent very little time covering Trump. When he first entered the crowded field of 17 challengers in the race for the GOP nomination, I viewed the whole Republican field as a clown show not to be taken seriously. Trump, the former reality TV show host, was expected to be the biggest clown of all with his funny hairstyle, outlandish statements, and comments that seemed to offend everyone from women to minority groups.

In fact I stated to tell several friends last year that hell would freeze over before Trump would win the GOP nomination. This week Trump pulled off what many of us thought was unbelievable. Trump, who has proudly touted how he has self-funded his campaign, said he would begin actively seeking donations for his campaign and raise money for the national party, part of the arduous task of coalescing a party deeply divided over his toxic brand of politics.

Party leaders are scrambling to stave off a parade of prominent Republicans endorsing Clinton, but already there were notable defections. The two living Republican past presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, have no plans to endorse Trump, according to their spokesmen.

In the swing state of Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval, a moderate Republican and rising Latino star, said he plans to vote for Trump despite their disagreements on some issues. But Republican Sen. Dean Heller said, “I vehemently oppose our nominee” because he disparaged women, Hispanics and veterans — although Heller insisted he would not vote for Clinton.

Democrats rushed to exploit the moment. The Clinton campaign released a brutal video mash-up of Republican rivals condemning Trump’s character and fitness for office, while the former secretary of state called him “a loose cannon” and invited Republicans and independents seeking an alternative to Trump to join her.

In states coast to coast, Democrats tried to link embattled Republican senators and other officeholders to Trump in hopes that the shrapnel from his polarizing candidacy would impair Republicans down the ballot. Some Republicans tried to keep mum about Trump, and others gave puzzling statements that sought to walk a tightrope between embracing him and distancing themselves from him.

As some conservative commentators lit up social media with images of burning GOP registration cards, some party elders called for a healing process and sought to quiet talk of an independent protest candidacy. I’m gearing up the marquee matchup now in view: Clinton vs. Trump.

There are still some wrinkles to be worked out — an independent (or minor-party) challenger might shake things up, but most people assume Clinton is the prohibitive favorite in this contest, and that’s fair. Current polling shows Trump would start the race as a historically unpopular candidate.

But nobody should be handing Clinton the keys to her old house just yet. Clinton over Trump is not a foregone conclusion — not in 2016, the year of such mistaken assumptions about the nature of American politics.

A generic sense that Trump has a puncher’s chance is now widespread. Usually, it involves a new development in Clinton’s legal troubles or a jarring terrorist attack that could change everything, and The Donald has proved sufficiently surprising by now that we are obliged to offer a heartfelt, “Who knows?”

But there are three particular factors making Trump a bigger threat to Clinton than is generally acknowledged.

• Concerns about bigotry aren’t the vote-mover you might think. Trump’s long history of outrageous statements combined with America’s current demographics, convinces many people he is dead on arrival. Should we assume that Trump will fare historically poorly among minorities, given his reputation for what many have labeled bigotry? Maybe. But then again maybe the notion that “everyone’s a little bit racist” is more widespread than politicians (and respectable commentators) often admit.

People care about bigotry most if it translates into harmful acts. There are some allegations of that: Trump’s real estate company allegedly committed some serious acts of discrimination back in the 1970s, and voters will hear a lot more about that before November. But the evidence of Trump’s racism is mostly a record of careless remarks.

Trump will surely make plenty of heartfelt declarations that there is no hatred in his heart, and then wave off his past insensitivities by saying, “Well, I’ve said a lot of things.” And so he has. That will be enough for many people — probably more than you think.

Trump also has an extremely low bar to clear to beat recent Republican performances with minority voters. In 2012, Barack Obama won a staggering 93 percent of African American votes, 71 percent of Hispanic votes and 73 percent of Asian American votes. Whatever one can say about Trump, he presents a radically different kind of choice from Mitt Romney. Can he really do much worse?

• Trump is much better at dictating the terms of engagement

That brings us to the second factor working in Trump’s favor: He has proved to be a brilliant manipulator of the terms of engagement. In terms of style and substance (or lack thereof), Trump made the Republican field talk about what he wanted to talk about and discuss the world in a more Trumpian way.

In contrast, in her 2008 and 2016 primary campaigns, Hillary Clinton allowed her opponents to set the terms of debate to a striking extent. In 2008, that led to her primary defeat and in 2016 to a surprisingly hard road to primary victory. Trump’s strength and Clinton’s weakness on this front make it hard to be confident that Democrats will succeed at setting the agenda in 2016.

• Clinton will be forced to defend the status quo

That means Democrats should not be overly confident that they make the election a referendum on Trump, the man. Surely if they could succeed at doing so, Clinton would win in a landslide.

But Trump will be selling voters something more than his outsized personality; he will be asking for a choice between “Trump, the middle finger to the way things have been,” and “Clinton, the choice of more of the same.” One doesn’t have to like Trump to choose the former. Indeed, there will be more than a few voters who talk themselves into the idea that only someone with as many obnoxious qualities as Trump will be capable of upsetting the necessary apple carts.

Clinton’s sales pitch is that she has a strong and steady record as first lady, senator and secretary of state who has learned how to work the system. That past as a consummate insider leaves her uniquely disadvantaged to defend against Trump’s anti-establishment attacks.

Clinton and future opponents of 21st century Jacksonian politics — Trumpian or not — need to find ways of offering their own broadly resonant version of “us.” Affirming the status quo isn’t a viable way of doing that today, and therein lies Clinton’s vulnerability.

None of that makes Trump the favorite to win in November. Although Trump’s qualifications and temperament have suffered glancing blows in the Republican primary, they will be relentlessly pummeled in the general election campaign — where his base is a much smaller piece of the pie.

That will badly hurt him with Americans who have a minimal sense of little-c conservatism and a strong aversion to scary-tale risks. But Trump has managed to shake the foundations of American politics like no candidate before.

Whether that was enabled by genius or luck (in politics, they are often difficult to disentangle), we should not underestimate him. I’ve already made that mistake. Our country can’t afford to make it.

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