WASHINGTON — After a bruising loss in Wisconsin, Donald Trump is back on friendlier terrain and courting fellow New Yorkers who have known him for years — for better or worse — as king of the hill, a staple of New York tabloids.
The front-runner’s return is preceded by a deep history in his home state. Trump’s marriages to two models and an actress dished up regular gossip-column fodder that helped forge a strange level of familiarity between average New Yorkers and the Manhattan billionaire.
“This is a guy who never met a camera he didn’t like,” said Jere Hester, a former city editor of the New York Daily News who is now on the faculty of the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. “He’s somebody who appreciates and even craves negative attention as much as he does positive attention because he sees value in it. His brand was television, it was real estate, it was a social and civic player in New York, and now he’s trying to take that to a new level politically.”
Polls show Trump leading in the state by 30 points as he looks to leverage his status as celebrity business mogul and get his Republican campaign for president back on track.
But Trump not only has to win New York, which votes April 19, to erase the nightmare of Ted Cruz’s win in the Badger State primary. Trump has to win New York big. To fail is to increase the odds of a contested GOP convention in Cleveland this summer.
Trump will need at least 50 percent of the vote in each congressional district to sweep all 95 delegates — a critical step toward his march to amassing the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination in July.
“So great to be back home! Wisconsin was a total DISASTER!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday, hours before a Long Island rally that drew more than 10,000 and, in typical fashion, led to at least two arrests.
Amid thunderous cheers of “USA! USA!” at the rally, the Queens native quickly hit hard at Cruz, who has derided him for harboring liberal “New York values” because of his past support for Democrats.
“The worst attack in the history of the United States,” Trump said, evoking memories of 9/11. “We all lived through it. We all know people that died. And I’ve got this guy, standing over there, looking at me, talking about New York values with scorn on his face, with hatred, with hatred of New York.”
Cruz, who has faced widespread scorn for the “New York values’” remark, which he made in South Carolina earlier in the campaign, has tried to pivot away.
‘‘They are the values of the liberal Democratic politicians like Andrew Cuomo, like Anthony Weiner, like Elliot Spitzer, like Charlie Rangel — all of whom Donald Trump has supported,’’ Cruz said during a campaign stop in the Bronx this week. ‘‘If you want to know what liberal Democratic values are, follow Donald Trump’s checkbook.’’
Trump has enjoyed decades of name recognition and brand resonance in New York, projecting success with buildings like the 52-story Trump Tower soaring over Central Park and by hosting the New York-based reality game show “The Apprentice.”
“When you think of New York you think big — in terms of large population, big buildings. He fits that image, being a big figure in a big city, so to speak,” said Robert Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University.
In his presidential campaign, Trump has also benefitted from saturated media coverage and an early string of primary wins. New Yorkers love a winner. The state has delivered his highest poll numbers yet, with 53 percent of likely Republican voters saying they would choose Trump. His net favorability rating among New York Republicans was about 40 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, compared to just 15 percent nationally among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents surveyed by Gallup.
While many voters, Republicans and Democrats, are repelled by Trump’s harsh rhetoric on immigrants, Muslims, and women — as well as the violence that has plagued his rallies — the majority of New York Republicans in a new Monmouth University poll say Trump’s controversial statements have no impact on how they will vote in the primary.
Trump has the highest support in the suburbs of Long Island, on Staten Island, and in Westchester County, but also fares well upstate, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth poll. The majority of the delegates will be awarded from congressional districts in and around New York City, even though there are relatively few Republicans there; Trump is expected to scoop up all of them.
“Anyone who’s spent any time in midtown Manhattan in the last 20 years will have seen his name on top of that building,” Murray said. “That’s the kind of brand awareness you can’t just suddenly buy in a campaign.”
Some of Trump’s strength comes down to his ideology — or lack thereof, said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster and strategist who had worked for Marco Rubio’s campaign before the Florida senator dropped out of the race.
Trump’s previously more liberal views on abortion and gun control might befit voters in New York City, McHenry said, but not the more conservative upstate and Finger Lakes regions. New York Republicans are not as religious or socially conservative as Republicans in Southern states, which benefits Trump.
Trump’s popularity has less to do with Trump himself or his tabloid persona than with his outsider status as a nonpolitician, said Representative Richard Hanna, a moderate Republican representing part of upstate who has vowed to never support Trump. So many New Yorkers are upset with the stalled economy and state government corruption, he said, that anyone who runs against the establishment is positioned to do well.
“Basically it could be Donald Duck or Donald Trump and he would get the turnout and support from a lot of unhappy people,” Hanna said.
Carl Paladino, a prominent Buffalo developer and failed gubernatorial candidate who shares Trump’s no-holds-barred personality, has threatened to launch e-mail attacks against Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation if they fail to endorse Trump. So far, two out of the nine have backed Trump.
“We like our native son,” said Paladino, the honorary cochairman of Trump’s New York campaign. “Here’s a guy who is unfiltered and hits people at the core. You want to call it ego? You want to call it brashness? That’s him. That’s the kind of leadership we need today.”
The 2016 campaign harkens in many ways to Trump’s years in reality TV, the latest example being the headlines for intraparty Twitter feuds over their wives’ appearances, rather than policy platforms.
As host of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” an NBC spinoff of “The Apprentice,” Trump pitted celebrities against each other for the title of the best business brain, treating viewers to the sight of washed-up pop stars and past Olympic athletes selling hot dogs in Manhattan.
As Trump has risen from Page Six gossip-column fodder to dominating front-page political coverage across the country, he has transformed his shtick from a figure of harmless amusement to a figure of divisiveness, said Hester, the former tabloid editor.
“The folks who are attracted to that New York-type character, the tough guy who says he can fix things, do it better, and doesn’t want to hear PC nonsense — that voice is resounding with even more force than it had in the past,” Hester said.