By Jonathan Lemire
Donald Trump, the nation's most shameless political flirt, is at it again.
This time, the billionaire real estate mogul, reality TV star and perennial self-promoter is toying with the idea of challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying the state's high taxes and tight gun-control laws make the Democratic incumbent vulnerable.
Trump has met with Republican leaders and has pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars on a potential campaign, the same kind of motions he's made once before for governor and several times for president over the years without ever actually jumping in.
For now, he's in no hurry to make up his mind.
"I've got time," he told The Associated Press in an interview this week. "I believe — and many people believe — I'm the only Republican who can win. I think I would win easily."
Trump, who Forbes estimates is worth $3.5 billion, has vowed that he'll only run if the state's Republican Party rallies behind him and he faces no challengers for the nomination.
"I've said it very clearly: If the Republican Party can unify and get their act together, I would spend the money and run," Trump said.
His rumored entry, however, has been met with some skepticism.
Trump briefly discussed running for governor once before, in 2006, and talked about White House bids in 2000, 2004 and 2008 before pulling the plug every time. He made his most substantial move yet toward running for president in 2012, giving speeches to a number of Republican groups and loudly questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Trump, a favorite in some conservative circles and highly visible thanks to the success of his reality show "The Apprentice," hovered near the top of some GOP polls in the months before the primary season started.
"I left leading in all the polls," said Trump, exaggerating his standing somewhat. He denied being a political flirt and expressed some regret for not running, saying he endorsed nominee Mitt Romney, "but unfortunately he let us down. He tried, but he let us down."
Trump is heading to Buffalo on Friday to meet with Erie County GOP leaders. While he believes Cuomo is vulnerable, it could be a tough challenge.
Cuomo, who was elected in 2010 and may be eyeing a White House run in 2016, has strong poll numbers and a $33 million campaign war chest. On the strength of a massive advantage in liberal New York City, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 statewide.
But some Republicans are toying with the idea of challenging him, including Rob Astorino, an official in suburban Westchester County north of New York City, and Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, who lost to Cuomo four years ago.
Astorino, fresh off a comfortable re-election win, is favored by some in the GOP establishment and has been traveling around the state talking to potential supporters. He said last week that he's leaning toward challenging Cuomo though he faces a steep financial disadvantage. His campaign has about $1 million on hand.
The GOP nominee is not decided in a primary but rather in a vote of 400-odd state committee chairs who will gather at a convention in May. Trump had harsh words for the man who will preside over that gathering, state committee chairman Ed Cox.
"The problem with the Republican Party in New York is that it's run by a guy who doesn't know how to lead," Trump said. "Look at the recent mayoral race, the last gubernatorial race. He doesn't know how to win."
In 2010, Cuomo defeated Paladino by nearly 30 percentage points. And this past November in the New York City mayoral election, Democrat Bill de Blasio routed Republican Joe Lhota by nearly 50 percentage points.
Cox refused to respond to Trump's comments but made clear that he wasn't going to ask anyone to abandon their campaign to clear a path for the reality TV star.
"Anyone who wants to be a candidate needs to go through our process," Cox said in an interview. "That's for Donald Trump and that's for Rob Astorino."
At 67, Trump has fashioned himself and his products into a symbol for a luxury lifestyle that would seemingly be at odds with the focus on income inequality put forth by his hometown's new mayor. Trump, who has also not squashed talk he could run for president in 2016, said he opposes de Blasio's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal prekindergarten.
"I'm a big believer in pre-K," he said. "But you can't raise taxes on people in New York. They're at a tipping point and you don't want to be driving people out of New York."
But Trump said he would reach across the aisle to offer good wishes to de Blasio.
"I give everyone the benefit of the doubt," he said. "I hope he's going to be a great mayor."