WASHINGTON • Mr Donald Trump has dramatically escalated his attacks on his nearest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Dr Ben Carson.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll may explain why: The billionaire real estate magnate is bleeding support among avid churchgoers and women to the retired neurosurgeon.
While Mr Trump has a comfortable double-digit lead over Dr Carson, data pointed to a possible emerging threat to Mr Trump's hopes of capturing the party's nomination for the November 2016 election. The poll of likely Republican primary voters also showed that Dr Carson is drawing strong support from the rural mid-west, including Iowa, which holds the first Republican nominating contest on Feb 1.
Mr Trump, in contrast, is drawing strong support in the north-east and south-east. That geographical divide is significant, analysts said, because Dr Carson's dominance in more socially conservative states, such as Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, reflects how his story of personal redemption is resonating strongly with evangelical voters.
They play a major role not just in the first nominating contest in Iowa, but also in Nevada and South Carolina, which also hold nominating votes in February.
Mr Trump has, until now, enjoyed strong support among the key constituency of low-income, blue-collar, church-going voters, who have been attracted by his image as a straight-talking political outsider.
But Dr Carson's similar appeal as an outsider taking on the Republican establishment has undercut Mr Trump's support in recent weeks, and Dr Carson has surged to the top of a few recent national polls.
Mr Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist not affiliated with either man, said Dr Carson's growing support with women and blue-collar voters may explain Mr Trump's recent attacks, such as highlighting media reports questioning elements of Dr Carson's personal story and, on Thursday, calling Dr Carson "pathological" and likening him to a child molester.
Mr Barry Bennett, Dr Carson's campaign manager, said of Mr Trump: "It's hard to explain his remarks but, clearly, he's feeling some pressure and overreacting."
Ms Bridget Miller, 43, from Stilwell, Kansas, said she had initially considered voting for Mr Trump, but switched to Dr Carson. "Carson is pro-life; he's pro-gun; he's saved babies' lives. He speaks to a lot of our values here," she said.
Mr Trump still either leads or shares the lead among most geographical and demographic groups, including wealthy and middle-income voters, people with and without college degrees, in the south-east, north-east, the upper Mid-West and the American West.
But the story is different among lower-paid workers.
In September, Dr Carson had just over 14 per cent of support among voters in households with an annual income of US$50,000 (S$71,000) or less, according to the broader Reuters/Ipsos data. By the end of last month, that had jumped to more than 23 per cent support. Mr Trump's support in the same group was flat at around 33 per cent.
Among likely female Republican primary voters, Dr Carson's support has jumped since September from about 19 to 27 per cent while Mr Trump's has slipped from 30 to 25 per cent.