Ridiculing Donald Trump--billionaire, presidential candidate, lounge lizard--has become so easy that it is no longer sporting. "Doonesbury" recently featured Trump squeezing a busty blonde and reciting his stump speech: "biggest! best! me! it's unbelievable! biggest! mine! tallest! biggest! me!" The New York Times' Maureen Dowd described him as a "high-rolling plutocrat," and The Weekly Standard called him "A Chump on the Stump."

I had followed the Donald west, determined to be contrary: I would take the developer and his nascent presidential candidacy seriously. It wasn't easy.

First, there was the problem of Pee-Wee. A Yorkshire terrier of slight proportions, Pee-Wee is the pet of Roger Stone, Trump's political consultant, and Stone's wife, Nydia. The couple had placed Pee-Wee in a piece of luggage and taken him aboard Trump's 727 for the California tour. But Pee-Wee proved to be a logistical nightmare for Trump's Australian advance woman, Diane, who was overwhelmed by a 35-person press contingent. While Diane herded the journalists, the Yorkie escaped from his bag and ran wild on the press bus.

Then there were Pee-Wee's owners. Back in 1996, tabloids linked the Stones to ads, in various swinger publications, seeking group sex. There were photos of her in a black negligee and him bare-chested, and there was an enumeration of her personal measurements. Stone said he had been set up, but he was forced to step down as an adviser to the Dole campaign.

And finally there was the vehicle for Roger Stone's rehabilitation: Donald Trump himself. An incorrigible show-off, Trump delighted in taking reporters aboard his plane (the one with the winged "T" on the tail and a mirrored headboard over the bed) for an utterly unnecessary, 15-mile flight from Los Angeles to Long Beach. Those who drove to Long Beach arrived a full hour before we did.

Yet, despite these obstacles, I was still determined to take Trump at his word. The guy says he's willing to spend $100 million on his Reform Party bid, and that would knock out Pat Buchanan. He has scheduled a January 7 press conference with Jesse Ventura, the Reform kingpin. He has hired signature firms to gain ballot access. He has done polls.

And he is shaking hands. A germ freak, Trump has said he doesn't want to touch the diseased masses. His campaign hands out half-ounce bottles of hand-cleaner, with Trump's website address taped to the necks. But, on board his plane, Trump walked up to me and extended his hand. It was a good, firm grip.

As part of his California trip, Trump toured the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where he was led from one disturbing display to another: hate speech, Bosnia, Rwanda, the civil rights struggle, the Holocaust. But Trump seemed detached, focusing his attention on the presentation rather than the content. Shown a video of a racial confrontation, he remarked: "Good actors." He spent an hour or so wandering around the exhibits, muttering "fabulous" and "unbelievable" and "brilliant execution" and "extraordinary" and "outstanding." The mood was occasionally broken by Roger Stone's telephone, which played the "Grande Valse" whenever there was a call.

After a guide asked the TV cameras to leave, Trump quickened his pace, galloping through the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust in about three minutes. Rejoined by the cameras, Trump slowed down and was handed a guest book to sign. He paused thoughtfully, as if searching for the perfect sentiment, then scribbled two words in the book: "great work!" He underlined "great" three times and dotted his exclamation point with a loop. He then contrasted his own tolerance with the "racist" views of his Reform opponent, Buchanan, whom he linked to Hitler. But even here Trump sounded like a developer. He marveled that Hitler came to power "so brilliantly." Fabulous! Great work, Adolf!

Later, in Anaheim, Trump delivered a speech at a motivational conference for 20,000 entrepreneurs. Before his talk, for which he earned $100,000, Trump paced backstage. I could make out the first sentence of the handwritten text: "All my life I've been successful." It went downhill from there. Trump noted that he flies the Concorde, owns the Empire State and General Motors buildings, and likes the United Nations because "it's right next to my 90-story building."

In private, Trump isn't as bad. He talks plainly and plausibly. Asked about the debates, he said he was appalled by Bush's showing. "And they say I'm not prepared?" he marveled. Furthermore, when you look at the policy positions Trump has taken so far, he's amassed a fairly sensible agenda: more regulation of tobacco and alcohol, no more soft money, no Social Security funds in the stock market, a missile defense system, and universal health care.

But if Trump is serious about his run--and he's far from convincing on that point--he'll have to make his candidacy less about himself. In other words, he'll need to undergo a personality transplant. During his California trip, he met with Reform Party activists and, inexplicably, insulted them. Asked about the Reform Party platform, Trump ridiculed his adopted party. "Nobody knows what the Reform Party platform is," he said, eliciting boos and prompting one activist to offer him a copy of the document. Trump sounded every bit the plutocrat running on a populist ticket. If he wants to be taken seriously, he'll have to lose the limousine with the 1ALPHA license plate, the mirrored headboard on the 727, and the phone that plays the "Grande Valse." If he's really serious, he might even think about finding a kennel for Pee-Wee.