WASHINGTON (AFP) - American billionaire Donald Trump, the dominant Republican no one can stop talking about heading into the 2016 presidential election, is leaving his rivals far behind in the polls.
The provocative real estate magnate and political neophyte remains at the centre of campaign firestorms, roiling the Republican establishment and leading the GOP pack as it gears up for the post-New Year gallop to Iowa and the first voting in the nominations process on Feb 1.
Mr Trump's campaign trail bombast - including extraordinary comments, among them a vulgar attack on Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton that stunned many observers - appears to have done him little if any harm in the polls as he solidifies the front runner status he has maintained since late July.
A new poll released on Wednesday (Dec 23) showed him with double the support of his nearest competitor.
The national CNN/ORC poll of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters has Mr Trump leading with 39 per cent support - more than twice that of Senator Ted Cruz on 18 per cent, a two-point gain since the companies' last poll in November.
Senator Marco Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have both slipped slightly and sit at 10 per cent, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came in fifth at five per cent. None of the other eight Republican candidates is above four per cent.
The poll, with a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points, was conducted following the latest Republican primary debate, in which Mr Trump and Mr Cruz were seen as performing well.
The latest figures put Mr Trump at 35.1 per cent support in the much followed RealClearPolitics.com polling average, his highest mark yet.
Mr Cruz is at 18.1 per cent in the average, solidifying his second place position over Mr Rubio.
Mr Trump has issued a series of controversial - some would say outrageous - statements since launching his campaign June 16, beginning with his accusation that Mexico was sending "rapists" and other criminals into the United States.
The latest controversies over his talk involve his Dec 7 call to bar Muslims from entering the United States, and verbal attacks Monday (Dec 21) on Mrs Clinton.
By losing to Mr Obama in the battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Mr Trump said Mrs Clinton had been "schlonged" - a vulgar neologism derived from a Yiddish term for penis.
Mrs Clinton on Tuesday (Dec 22) returned fire.
"I really deplore the tone of his campaign and the inflammatory rhetoric that he is using to divide people," Mrs Clinton told the Des Moines Register in an interview.
His crude description of her election loss was "not the first time he's demonstrated a penchant for sexism," she added.
"Trump really is appalling," conservative commentator William Kristol said on Wednesday on CNN.
The national trend nevertheless continues to tilt The Donald's way, to the consternation of rivals including Jeb Bush, who lambasted Mr Trump as a "jerk" at the weekend.
Mr Bush, a former Florida governor, was the race's early front runner, only to slip into the lower tier.
On Wednesday, he told Fox News that Mr Trump's hostile language was "going to make it harder for the party's nominee, whoever that's going to be, to win. We want to win the election".
With Mr Trump surging, Republican candidates have begun to bristle in the face of a barrage of media questions about the unlikely front runner.
"I am not going to respond to everything that comes out of Donald Trump's mouth," Mr Christie seethed to CNN on Tuesday (Dec 22).
Republican voters are siding with Mr Trump on some key issues, however.
Four out of five Democrats oppose his proposed Muslim ban, according to a Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday, while 41 per cent of Republicans back it.
Seventy-four per cent of Democrats said they would accept Syrian refugees in the US, while 82 per cent of Republicans would not, the poll showed.