WASHINGTON - Late last week, Mitt Romney's campaign unveiled its latest fundraising gambit: Donate just $3 and you are eligible to have dinner with reality-TV star Donald Trump - and, oh, yeah, the former Massachusetts governor will be there, too.
"Donate today and you are eligible for a chance to win: Airport transportation in the Trump vehicle," a "stay at the Trump International Hotel & Tower New York," a chance to "tour the Celebrity Apprentice Boardroom," and an opportunity to "dine with Donald Trump and Mitt Romney," reads the message on Romney's campaign Web site.
But wait: There's more! Romney was also with Trump on Tuesday night at a Las Vegas fundraiser.
All this Trump talk raises a simple question: Why is Romney associating himself with a man who is the public face of the debunked idea that President Obama was not born in the United States, and, perhaps more important, a man whose sole principle in life is self-promotion?
The Obama campaign quickly sought to make political hay out of the Trump-Romney connection.
"Mitt Romney's continued embrace of Donald Trump and refusal to condemn his disgraceful conspiracy theories demonstrates his complete lack of moral leadership," said deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. "If Mitt Romney lacks the backbone to stand up to a charlatan like Donald Trump because he's so concerned about lining his campaign's pockets, what does that say about the kind of president he would be?"
The Romney team tried to play down the Trump tie. "Governor Romney has said repeatedly that he believes President Obama was born in the United States," said spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "The Democrats can talk about Donald Trump all they want - Mitt Romney is going to talk about jobs and how we can get our economy moving again."
The argument put forward by defenders of the Romney-Trump alliance is centered on two ideas: money and the Republican base.
On the money front, these defenders argue that Trump's celebrity brings in a different kind of donor - including the precious small spenders whose dollars add up - that Romney might not otherwise attract. The low donation minimum - $3 - shows that Romney's finance people think Trump has appeal among these small donors.
As for the base, the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody laid out the argument this way on his blog:
"Associating with Donald Trump gives Mitt Romney a way of being brash without being brash. Trump is popular with a certain portion of the GOP, the portion that Romney doesn't connect with. Trump's bravado is not necessarily a bad thing for Romney because it connects him to a flamethrower and his audience without having to throw the flames himself."
True enough, on both fronts.
But dig a little deeper and it becomes more difficult to understand how the benefits of aligning with Trump outweigh the costs.
In terms of money, does anyone really think Romney is going to have trouble raising the cash he needs to be competitive with President Obama? In April alone, Romney and the Republican National Committee collected more than $40 million - roughly the same amount Obama and the Democratic National Committee brought in.
There's no doubt that Trump can help at the margins in terms of raising money but, with Romney and the RNC expected to collect north of $800 million for this election, cash isn't going to be a problem.
When it comes to speaking directly to the GOP base, it's absolutely true that Trump's brashness is more appealing than Romney's stuffed-shirt business pragmatism.
But poll after poll suggests that the party's conservative base quickly aligned behind Romney once it became clear he would be the nominee. The simple reality is that while Romney makes very few conservative hearts go pitter-patter, the base so dislikes and distrusts President Obama that it is going to back whoever ends up on the ballot as the alternative.
Romney's task is not then primarily to unify his base but rather to reach out to independents. And polling suggests Trump won't help there. In a December 2011 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 41 percent of independents had a favorable opinion of Trump while 47 percent saw him in an unfavorable light. And in a January Post-Pew poll, more than a quarter of people (26 percent) said a Trump endorsement would make them less likely to support a candidate while just 8 percent said it would make them more likely.
The best argument we have heard for Romney's recent embrace of Trump is that when the Donald speaks, the media cover it. He has a microphone, and so you'd rather have him in the fold than acting as a free radical. (That's the classic "best of a bad situation" argument.)
Even still, it seems like too risky a gamble for Romney to associate with Trump. Regardless of whether Trump is allied with Romney or not, Trump's first, second and third concerns are and always will be what's good for him.
Trump is, at this point in his life, largely an entertainer and a celebrity. He goes where the attention is. (Does anyone really believe that Trump thinks the president wasn't born in the United States?) In other words, Trump will be with Romney until he decides it is no longer advantageous for him to be with Romney.
Romney is playing by the rules of the game for a politician. Trump has no concern for - and almost certainly disdains - those rules. Allying yourself with someone who is playing by an entirely different set of rules (or no rules whatsoever) is a dangerous game.
A tweet by Trump on Tuesday is a case in point:
".BarackObama is practically begging MittRomney to disavow the place of birth movement, he is afraid of it and for good reason. He keeps using SenJohnMcCain as an example, however, SenJohnMcCain lost the election. Don't let it happen again."
And Trump had this to say Tuesday morning on CNBC: "His mother was never in the hospital, they don't know which hospital it was, his grandmother said he was born in Kenya. It all wouldn't matter except if you're born in a foreign country."
So, that happened.
Democrats are already working to take advantage of the Romney-Trump link, and you can bet that if The Donald makes any other impolitic comments between now and November (and he almost certainly will), the Obama campaign will try to make Romney answerable for them.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the chatter about Obama's birth certificate a "ridiculous distraction" at his daily news conference Tuesday.
When it comes to Romney's gamble on Trump, we're with conservative columnist George F. Will. Said Will over the weekend on ABC's "This Week": "What voter is going to vote for him because he's seen with Donald Trump? The cost of appearing with this bloviating ignoramus is obvious, it seems to me."