WASHINGTON - New polls suggest that no matter what he says, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump remains the top pick of conservative Republican voters less than eight weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa on February 1.
Late Monday, Trump set off a political firestorm both at home and abroad when he proposed banning Muslims from coming into the United States. Yet by Thursday, public opinion polls both nationally and in key early-voting states showed Trump's popularity continuing to surge.
The latest New York Times-CBS News national poll shows Trump leading the Republican presidential field with 35 percent support, far ahead of Texas Senator Ted Cruz at 16 percent and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 13 percent. The latest state polls show Trump well ahead in New Hampshire, competing with Cruz for the lead in Iowa, and building a solid lead in South Carolina.
The latest Fox News poll of Republican primary voters also put Trump at 35 percent, with Carson at 15 percent, and Cruz and Marco Rubio tied at 14 percent each.
Trump’s backers, rivals
Trump's idea to temporarily block Muslims from entering the U.S. sparked the strongest negative response yet from his Republican presidential rivals, and even from congressional leaders.
"This suggestion is completely and totally inconsistent with American values," Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at the Capitol this week, not long after House Speaker Paul Ryan said it is not what the Republican Party or the country "stands for."
But Trump's Republican rivals refused to rule out supporting him if he becomes the eventual Republican nominee.
Trump's threat to run as an independent candidate if he is not treated well by the Republican Party continues to hang over the race; a recent USA Today-Suffolk University poll found that 68 percent of Trump supporters would stick with him if he ran as a third-party candidate.
Trump's continued surge in the polls comes in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, California. The domestic attack in particular has shaken Americans and a recent Bloomberg News poll found that 65 percent of Republicans surveyed backed Trump's idea for a temporary ban on Muslim visitors.
Worries about terrorism and national security now loom large in the election campaign.
"With regard to overseas issues, the principal one is what it has been since 9/11, namely, Mr. or Madam President, please keep us safe," analyst Bill Galston told VOA in an interview at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Democrats see an opening
The furor over Trump's proposal has Democrats hopeful that they can exploit it in the general election campaign. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and Obama White House officials have called Trump's Muslim proposal "disqualifying" and have urged his Republican rivals to renounce his campaign.
Clinton supporters have welcomed the uproar and argue that her experience as secretary of state should boost her chances in a general election focused on security. But some analysts question that notion.
"We are starting to see it now — that the issue of terrorism, not just foreign policy leadership generally, is becoming an issue that Republicans can really make some hay with the president, and thereby put Hillary Clinton in a difficult position because of her participation in the Obama administration," said John Fortier with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
Change versus status quo
The outcome of the 2016 election could eventually boil down to one simple question, according to American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman.
"The electorate is going to make one decision and one decision only — have the Democrats governed well enough to get four more years in the White House?” he said. “Or have they governed poorly enough so that the voters want a change?"
That is the traditional take. But in a year of unexpected twists dominated by the rise of Trump, many experts are shying away from predicting what might happen next.
"To be honest with you, I have no idea and anyone who tells you they do is lying to you," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, a sentiment shared by many eagerly watching the runup to the first votes in Iowa.
Trump remains the central figure in the race for the White House, and he seems to thrive on making outrageous statements and the controversy that follows. His previous comments about "rapists" coming from Mexico and the war-hero status of Senator John McCain drew rebukes from pundits and strategists, who then saw him rise in the polls.
Trump's core appeal is still to non-college-educated white voters who fear that the America they once knew is no longer.