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Trump Continues to Lead Republican Field Despite Controversy

FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters after the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Aug. 6, 2015.

FILE - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters after the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Aug. 6, 2015.

Billionaire Donald Trump may have taken some hits in last week’s Republican presidential debate, but so far it doesn’t appear to be hurting him in the polls.

The latest Reuters-Ipsos national poll found Trump holding steady at the top of the Republican field with 24 percent, followed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at 12 percent. Bush was at 17 percent before the debate. No one else garnered more than 8 percent support in the online survey, which was conducted between the end of the debate last Thursday and Sunday.

Two new polls in the early contest state of Iowa also show Trump now surging into a lead over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who had been leading in Iowa for months. A Suffolk University survey found Trump at 17 percent, followed by Walker with 12 percent. A Public Policy poll also found Trump leading with 19 percent, followed by Walker at 12 percent and Bush in third place with 11 percent.

Third-party option

Trump appeared Tuesday on Fox News Channel for the first time since last week’s debate and again raised the specter of a third-party effort should he not win the Republican nomination. “I want to run as a Republican, but I do want to keep that door open in case I don’t get treated fairly,” Trump said on “Fox and Friends.”

Previously, Trump criticized one of the Fox debate hosts, Megyn Kelly, who asked him about past offensive comments he has made about women. After the debate, Trump told CNN that he thought Kelly was angry about their exchange during the debate and said she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” That comment sparked a furious backlash against Trump, and he spent several days trying to explain what he meant. Trump was disinvited from the grass-roots conservative Red State gathering held right after the Cleveland debate.

On her Fox show Monday night, Kelly said she felt her question to Trump about his comments concerning women was a “tough but fair question.” She added, “I certainly will not apologize for doing good journalism.”

Rivals careful

The reaction among Trump’s Republican rivals to his debate comments and penchant for attacking critics remains mixed. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said in a conference call with reporters that Trump is “an empty suit here, full of bravado.”

“Unless someone points out the emperor has no clothes,” Paul went on, “we’ll end up with a reality TV star as the nominee if we’re not careful.”

Paul was one of the few Republicans on the debate stage in Cleveland to go after Trump after the latter refused to pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee or rule out a third-party bid.

Bush has said Trump’s language is “divisive,” and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said Trump’s comments about Kelly were “completely inappropriate and offensive.” Walker and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, another GOP presidential candidate, have also criticized Trump.

But several other candidates have steered clear of taking critical shots, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich, who said in the debate that Trump had “touched a nerve” with his blunt-spoken campaign. Cruz in particular has been careful not to criticize Trump, perhaps in hopes of eventually winning over Trump supporters to his campaign if and when Trump stumbles.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also weighed in on the Trump controversy during a rare media availability with reporters in New Hampshire.

“I know it makes great TV, but I think the guy went way overboard, outrageous, pick your adjective,” she said Monday.

Clinton said she attended Trump’s 2005 wedding because she thought it would be “fun” and “entertaining.” She added, “Now that he’s running for president, it’s a little more troubling.”

Trouble for Trump?

Trump’s refusal to pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee may have sown some doubts about his loyalty among party activists.

“His refusal to play by party rules is a long-term problem for him,” said National Journal's Hotline Executive Editor Josh Kraushaar. “Trump said [in the debate] that he won’t be a team player, and he did not provide any policy answers. It’s an open question as to whether he can keep it going.”

Trump remains an unpredictable force in the Republican field at the moment, but in the long run he may do the party some good. Last week’s debate drew 24 million viewers, a record for a primary debate, and voters got a good look at some other plausible nominees including Rubio, Kasich and Fiorina. The former CEO performed well in the earlier debate for the seven contenders who did not qualify for the top 10 debate in prime time.

That exposure could pay off down the road if, as many experts predict, Trump eventually implodes. But there is no sign of that happening yet, and Trump has maintained his lead in the polls even after slamming illegal immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists” and criticizing Senator John McCain’s war record.

“There is a long way to go,” said Hotline's Kraushaar. “We have eight more debates and many months to go, and at the moment it remains a very unsettled Republican field.”

The intense focus on Trump is already taking a toll on the rest of the Republican field. Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had hoped the debate would rekindle their campaigns, but they were both overshadowed during the debate by Trump.

Meanwhile, former Texas Governor Rick Perry has stopped paying campaign staffers as he struggles in the polls and in fundraising. Perry was one of the seven Republican contenders relegated to the so-called undercard debate last week.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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