Donald Trump has shaken off intense criticism about his anti-Muslim comments to surge to his biggest lead yet in the Republican presidential nominations race.
Two polls unveiled on Monday and Tuesday show Trump at new heights, with maverick US Senator Ted Cruz surging into second place and looking to rattle the frontrunner on the national stage.
With just seven weeks before voters in the heartland state of Iowa cast the first votes in the nominations process, Trump, Cruz and seven other candidates will go toe-to-toe in Las Vegas in the final Republican presidential debate of the year on Wednesday.
Verbal fireworks are expected in the showdown on CNN, especially if rivals aggressively confront the bombastic real estate tycoon over his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
The debate is the first since the deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California – violence that has brought national security concerns to the fore and heightened Americans’ fears about illegal immigration and Syrian refugees.
Those fears likely played prominently in recent surveys, including a Monmouth University poll released on Monday showing 41 per cent of Republican voters support Trump, his highest position yet in the poll.
Cruz surged to 14 per cent, with 10 per cent for Senator Marco Rubio and nine per cent for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. All others are at three per cent or lower.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll on Tuesday, Trump earned 38 per cent support among registered Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, a six-point climb from November.
Cruz doubled to 15 per cent, while Rubio and Carson were tied at 12 per cent each.