BURLINGTON, Iowa — Even Donald Trump admits to being a bit surprised by his phenomenal rise and sustained lead in the Republican presidential race. And he is relishing every minute of it.
"I didn't know it would be this quick," he told USA TODAY happily.
In an interview on the 100th consecutive day he has led in national polls — and approaching 100 days before the opening Iowa caucuses — Trump was more than willing to opine on the big issues that would face a presidential nominee and a president.
He's thought about possible running mates, including some of the rivals now competing for the 2016 nomination.
The Federal Reserve already should have raised interest rates from the very low levels set during the Great Recession, and he suspects Fed Chair Janet Yellen has delayed doing it for political reasons. "When you raise interest rates, I think a lot of bad things can happen, in terms of recession, everything else," he notes, suggesting she wants to wait until the next president is poised to take over.
House Speaker John Boehner foolishly threw away negotiating leverage with the White House by declaring that Congress wouldn't allow the United States to default on its debt next month. "I would use the debt limit to negotiate a great deal" to control spending, he says. "How can you do that if you've already announced that you're not going to violate the debt?"
Trump declares, as he has before, that he is a world-class negotiator and a proven deal-maker, a product of some of the nation's finest schools and a very rich man.
It is increasingly hard to deny that the 69-year-old celebrity billionaire is also a credible Republican presidential nominee.
Trump agrees that the 2016 campaign is moving into a different phase. He's not sure what impact an expected deluge of attack ads financed by other campaigns, super-PACs and advocacy groups will have, although he notes that the competitors who have taken him on in the past have seen their support drop.
And he says that he's tempering his language because he no longer needs to be quite as bombastic as he was at the start of his unconventional campaign.
"You know, before, we had 17 people (running) and we were all out there fighting and I had people out there hitting me," he says. But now, "we're so far out in front that there's no reason to be quite the way we were, and I do want to tone it down a little bit, but at the same time I don't want to lose the energy. We have tremendous energy going for us; our campaign has tremendous energy.
"You know, when you have a good thing going, you don't want to change it too much. But I do not want to lose the energy so I don't want to tone it down too much."
No backing down
That doesn't really seem to be a risk.
In the interview, Trump doesn't back down from his criticism of former president George W. Bush for failing to respond more effectively to intelligence warnings of the threat from Osama bin Laden before the deadly Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Indeed, he expands the critique to also include former president Bill Clinton.
"They both carry responsibility," he says, calling their administrations' policies on immigration "very lax" and their focus on bin Laden inadequate. "Certainly Clinton managed to mention the name in a speech, Osama bin Laden, and he didn't do anything about it," Trump says. "Certainly it's something that could have been stopped if they had gone that extra mile."
(Clinton did order airstrikes on al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1997, in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.)
Trump says he is the candidate with the strong leadership skills that are the most important quality of a commander in chief, although he lacks traditional credentials for the job. He scoffs at the idea that Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would make a more effective negotiator with, say, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bush this week wrote an op-ed article in National Review charging that Trump's "bluster overcompensates for a shocking lack of knowledge on the complex national-security challenges that will confront the next president of the United States," calling his views "dangerous."
"Well, I think I know more about national security than he does," Trump replies. "I think that I would be far more respected by people who run countries, whether it's Putin or you go to China or you go anywhere. We'd have a far more respected administration and a far more respected country."
As he prepares for the third Republican debate next week, Trump says it's time for those who can't make the threshold of 3% support in national polls to end their campaigns. That category would include South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York governor George Pataki and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
"You have people who were supposed to be really good and they're down to one point or they're down to two points, and some are down to nothing," he says. "To be honest with you, I don't know why they keep running. Perhaps they think it's good for the brand but I don't think it's good for their brand, personally. I think they should get out. I could name a few, but I won't do that because I'm a nice person."
Then he names a few.
"I think it's an embarrassment to the party when Bobby Jindal gets up on stage and when Pataki, who has zero," he said. "You look at Lindsey Graham; it's very sad. Lindsey Graham, he's a sitting senator. He's at zero. And you have a number of zeros and I would think they should get on with their life and go back home."
On the Democratic side, Trump says he wasn't surprised by Vice President Joe Biden's announcement Wednesday that he wouldn't jump into the race. Biden probably would have lost to former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he says, though he also calls Biden a more formidable general-election opponent than Clinton.
"I think he probably saw that he was late," Trump says. "He probably looked at polls. I'm a believer in polls. I only like them because I've been Number One for 100 days now, which is pretty good. How often do you see polls are wrong? Not too often."
Money in the bank
The conventional wisdom first was that Trump wouldn't really run and then, once he did, that his combative comments about Mexican immigrants, female journalists and others would undermine his standing. The general theory was that Trump could affect the debate but not actually win the nomination.
After all, only once since World War II has either major party nominated for president a candidate who hadn't won elective office before, and that was war hero Dwight Eisenhower.
But this week four more national polls showed Trump ahead. In the ABC News/Washington Post Poll, Trump's support was at 32%, trailed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 22% and Florida senator Rubio at 10%. Former Florida governor Bush, crowned by some as a front-runner before the race began, has dropped to a stunning fourth place and 7%.
Trump has now held the lead longer than the string of up-and-down contenders in 2012 — Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich — and has held it more consistently than Mitt Romney, who become the nominee.
He has managed to tap a deep well of dissatisfaction with politicians and politics. During the interview, in a space backstage, the sound of as many as 2,000 supporters massed in the Burlington Memorial Auditorium could be heard cheering and chanting his name.
He has won their backing, he points out, without yet deploying much of the personal wealth he's willing to spend.
"I have put up almost nothing, actually zero, in advertising. It's an actual zero," he says. "I would have thought that I would have had (spent) between $20 and $25 million now. I've spent nothing. At the right time, I'll probably do advertising.
"So far, I haven't needed it."
Watch CNBC's "Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate" on Wednesday, October 28. The debate will feature two setsof candidates discussing critical issues facing America today, including job growth, taxes and the health of our economy. Coverage begins at 5pm E.T.