“Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich. So if I need $600 million, I can put $600 million in myself. That’s a huge advantage … over the other candidates.”

So says real estate magnate and reality TV show host Donald Trump, talking about the 2012 U.S. presidential elections.

It’s 18 months to go to November 6, 2012, an eternity in politics, but two things already seem clear: it will be the most expensive campaign ever and the line between the political fringe and mainstream politics will often be blurred.

First, the numbers. The opening of President Barack Obama’s election campaign on April 4 prompted a slew of predictions that he would manage to raise $1 billion, comfortably in excess of the $780 million his supporters provided in 2008. That was a record, more than twice as much as his rival, Republican John McCain (and almost exactly twice as much as George W. Bush in 2004).

None of the potential Republican candidates has yet declared he (or she) is in the running. None can boast to match the “beauty” of Trump, who ranks 488 on Forbes magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s billionaires with an estimated net worth of $2 billion. If he did run, he could afford the $600 million he is talking about. In a series of television interviews, Trump has said he would make a decision in June.