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Clash of the Titans

In this corner: “The Vegas Volcano,” weighing in at $780 million. In this corner: “The Donald,” weighing in at $1.4 billion.

Three miles outside Atlantic City, Donald Trump comes into view. At first there’s just a fuzzy glow of neon against the night sky as the two narrow lanes of the Atlantic City Expressway churn relentlessly, straight ahead, across a dull expanse of marsh. Then huge letters come blazing into focus above the flat, unobstructed landscape: Trump Marina. Trump Taj Mahal. Trump Plaza. It feels as if the very horizon is branded.

Right about here, at the 0.5-mile marker of the expressway, a new piece of road will soon rise, leading to Le Jardin, florid centerpiece of a gargantuan new casino complex planned for Atlantic City’s marina district. The project is a partnership between the state of New Jersey and Nevada’s preeminent resort mogul, Steve Wynn, a man routinely lauded as a “visionary” for reinventing the Las Vegas Strip as a family-friendly fun house that just happens to have gambling on the side. Wanting to be helpful, Wynn had his architects draw up a design for the expressway interchange. It was a clever piece of engineering. It would whisk cars and buses to the marina, where Wynn plans a $1.5 billion habitat for slot machines and baccarat tables. And with a ramp and a bridge soaring 25 feet in the air, Wynn’s massive heap of concrete and asphalt would completely obliterate any glimpse of Donald Trump in the distance.

A completely unintentional side effect, of course.

Steve Wynn, 56, and Donald Trump, 52, have been slugging it out for more than a decade. Theirs is an especially colorful, spleenful contempt, all too rare in modern-day big business. Larry Ellison hates Bill Gates, but the chairman of Oracle doesn’t run around calling the chairman of Microsoft “this scumbag,” as Trump does Wynn.

For most of the ten years’ war, the fighting has been long-distance and sporadic. Trump, from his Fifth Avenue headquarters, would occasionally poach one of Wynn’s executives; Wynn, from behind his fake volcano in the desert, would mock Ivana’s accent and occasionally sic a squadron of lawyers on Trump.

Now the brawl is raging at Columbus Circle’s Coliseum, where Wynn proposes to plunk luxury condos down on the doorstep of Trump’s brassy new International Hotel and Tower. And in Atlantic City, where Wynn’s megalo-marina project -- with its three acres of year-round-blooming flowers, its glistening streams, and its exotic performance troupes -- will arrive in the backyard of Trump’s weakest casino.

How bad is the blood? Trump and Wynn despise each other so much that they’ve aligned themselves with rival morning-radio proxies. “I do like Trump,” Don Imus says, “but he’s kind of a Howard Stern butt-boy now. Trump appeared on Howard’s program as opposed to mine; therefore, his new book bombed. I was happy to see that.”

The Wynn-Trump feud could easily be laughed off as a petty (albeit highly entertaining) game of Mine’s Bigger -- that is, if there weren’t millions of tax dollars and tens of thousands of jobs involved. Trump, the self-proclaimed “biggest real-estate developer in New York,” is finally building his enormous Riverside South project after dodging bankruptcy. Just as the health of Trump’s empire is improving, Wynn has gone to federal court charging him with restraint of trade; if Trump, Atlantic City’s largest employer, loses the $150 million suit, his casino license may be jeopardized. Even if Trump prevails, he’d better hope Wynn’s new pleasure dome increases revenues across the Boardwalk. Trump, despite his impressive comeback, is still deeply leveraged, and casino cash is his lifeblood.

For Wynn, the stakes are equally high. Not only is building in Atlantic City important to the growth of his company -- especially after Connecticut and Detroit rebuffed him in the past three years -- but the marina project is likely to be the last major piece of construction Wynn will ever see. Retinitis pigmentosa, diagnosed when he was 29, is gradually robbing Wynn of his eyesight. In four years, when the doors of his long-awaited lido are scheduled to swing open, blindness will be closing in on Steve Wynn.