Trump and Cruz dominate, Clinton tested

Ted Cruz (AP)
Ted Cruz (AP)

Washington - Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are neck and neck down the stretch to the first vote in the US presidential nominating contest, while Hillary Clinton struggles to repel a surging Bernie Sanders, polls showed.

With the Iowa caucuses 20 days away, the US presidential contest was on the boil on Tuesday, with several candidates barnstorming the heartland state and New Hampshire as they jockey for early bragging rights in the race to the November 2016 general election.

Celebrity billionaire Trump and conservative Senator Cruz are walking away with the Republican race in Iowa, but the pair are within a hair of one another, according to three polls released on Monday and Tuesday.

The latest survey by Quinnipiac University shows Trump leading with 31% support to Cruz's 29, while Senator Marco Rubio remains a distant third at 15% and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is fourth with 7%. 

Public Polling Policy's survey on Tuesday shows Trump leading Cruz 28-26, with Rubio at 13%, while ARG's Monday poll has Trump with a four-point lead over Cruz, with Rubio in third.

"The Iowa Republican Caucuses are tight as a tick entering the final two weeks of the campaign," Quinnipiac poll assistant director Peter Brown said.

Cruz fares better than Trump with voters on characteristics such as honesty, empathy, experience and shared values, he said.

"But they see the New York businessman as better able to handle some key issues. Trump is way ahead on handling the economy and terrorism."

Trump has shocked many in the American electorate with his anti-Muslim remarks and other divisive comments.

Like Trump, first-term Senator Cruz has sought to portray himself as a Washington outsider railing against the establishment.

Perhaps hoping to burnish that image, campaign staff said Cruz was in New Hampshire and would not be in the US Capitol on Tuesday night for President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address to Congress.

On the Democratic side, Clinton remains the frontrunner nationally, but she is being tested by Sanders, an independent senator and self-described democratic socialist.

She is particularly under the gun in New Hampshire, where Sanders has opened up a 14-point lead, 53% to 39%, according to a Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday.

It marks a dramatic swing from November, when the poll showed Clinton leading by three points there. Maryland's former governor Martin O'Malley, the only other Democrat in the race, is a distant third in all polls.

New Hampshire borders Sanders's state of Vermont and is where he would likely shine brightest in the early contests.

But the unlikely challenger is doing well in Iowa, too.

Clinton and Sanders have split the lead there in recent surveys, but a poll average compiled by show Sanders making steady gains in Iowa while Clinton has slumped.

The pair are now in a dead heat in Iowa, while national polls show Sanders has closed the gap to its smallest margin yet: Clinton now leads nationally by an average of 12.8 points.

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