10/01/2004 12:00AM

Success no sure thing with Trump

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LAS VEGAS - If billionaire developer Donald Trump appears to be everywhere, that's because he is. You can't watch TV, read the newspaper, or stand in line at the supermarket and scan the weekly tabloids without seeing his face or name.

Trump visited Las Vegas earlier this summer and met with Mayor Oscar Goodman. Goodman's wife, Carolyn, joked with Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith that, "I've never been in a room with two bigger egos."

Soon, Trump will be a permanent fixture in Las Vegas. The 64-story Trump International Hotel and Tower, just off the Strip at the intersection of Industrial Road and Fashion Show Drive, will break ground in the spring of 2005. Trump is working in partnership with Phil Ruffin, owner of the New Frontier Hotel and Casino.

Insiders are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The aging New Frontier sits on a valuable 41-acre tract across the street from Wynn Las Vegas. Steve Wynn's brand new $2.4 billion megaresort will open this spring and greatly enhance the neighborhood. Having Trump partner with Ruffin in a new megaresort across the Strip from Wynn would be too good to be true.

So Donald Trump has been on another roll, but with one big problem.

On the plus side, Trump is number 74, with $2.6 billion net worth, on Forbes's 400 richest Americans list. His TV show, "The Apprentice," continues to draw high ratings on NBC. A Trump doll, 12 inches tall with perfectly coiffured hair, spouts 17 phrases and is on sale for $26.99. Expect "Donald Trump, The Fragrance" to be marketed soon by Estee Lauder.

Trump spoke Thursday at the University of Buffalo and plans to donate his $200,000 speaking fee to charity.

But Trump's Achilles' heel is a big one. His Atlantic City casinos, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza, and Trump Marina, are hemorrhaging cash. It's hard to believe Trump's casinos are on the verge of bankruptcy considering how vibrant the gaming industry is doing throughout the U.S.

It reminds me of a line Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used during the 1993 New York City mayoralty election. He accused then-Mayor David Dinkins and New York City OTB president Hazel Dukes of "running the only bookie operation in the world that lost money."

Trump Hotels stock traded as high as $34 in 1996, but is now under $1. The company is more than $1.8 billion in debt. Interest payments on the debt are a staggering $220 million a year.

If Trump was on "The Apprentice," he would have to consider firing himself. But no one is better at turning a negative into a positive than Donald Trump. It will be interesting to see how the great dealmaker turns this one around.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.