Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump remains in the lead in most polls and is even tying Senator Ted Cruz in Cruz's home state of Texas. But things could change.
"[Trump's] persona is brash and speak-your-mind," said Kirby Goidel, who works on public policy research at Texas A & M University, adding that Trump and his supporters seem to think "it is o.k. if you are wrong as long as you are saying things that need to be said."
Goidel's assessment is supported by VOA interviews in downtown Houston with voters like Terri, who said, "I don't like his attitude sometimes, but I think he would be a good president for the country. … He just seems to be strong. That is what we need is a strong leader."
Beth, another voter, says Trump addresses the fears that she and many other citizens have about terrorism and illegal immigration.
"I just don't feel like the government is really focusing on our safety here in the U.S.," she said. "They are more focused on immigration and bringing immigrants in and not really focusing on the American citizens that are here."
Many of those concerns are the same as those expressed by conservative voters who support Cruz or other candidates. But Trump has overshadowed them all with his rhetoric and style. Even when he says things that are later proven wrong, his supporters are not fazed.
Trump is a celebrity who once had his own television program, and he draws far more media coverage than any other candidate.
Goidel says television news programs have boosted their ratings by giving Trump free rein, much to the chagrin of other candidates.
"The more he has gotten this free media coverage, the more he has risen in the polls," Goidel said. "Now it looks like some of the media are getting tired of just letting him talk. They are being more aggressive and more forthright in challenging him."
But that media criticism can benefit Trump. He often encourages crowds to boo the reporters who cover his rallies, accusing them of being biased toward liberals. But conservative broadcasters and pundits have also attacked Trump, and hardline conservatives seem put off by Trump's failure to outline specific proposals or policies.
Cruz, who some see as best positioned to overtake Trump, is the candidate who seems least inclined to criticize him.
Goidel thinks Cruz may be counting on an eventual Trump decline through which he, Cruz, could benefit.
"Ultimately, Trump will falter," Goidel said. "The people looking for the outsider will find him appealing and they will find him [Cruz] similar to Trump without some of Trump's [problems]."
But Goidel says it may not be easy for Cruz, or anyone else, to attract Trump supporters.
"I don't know what percentage of his support is core-and-consistent Trump,” Goidel said, “but he is tapping into a significant part of that electorate that seems like it is not likely to just go to another candidate or go to another candidate easily."
Cruz, coming on
Recent polls in Iowa and South Carolina show growing support for Cruz, especially among evangelicals and other voters concerned with moral issues. Trump, who went through a highly publicized divorce and owns several casinos, is not what many devout Christians view as a role model.
Bill O'Sullivan, treasurer of the Texas Patriot PAC, which supports conservative candidates and causes, told VOA that while Trump rules the media, Cruz is building a strong organization in Iowa.
"Cruz has been working on an important factor in Iowa, which is the evangelicals, and he has an enormous ground game there,” O’Sullivan said.
Even though he has been in the U.S. Senate for nearly three years, O'Sullivan said Cruz, like Trump, is seen as a Washington outsider who refuses to go along with business as usual.
"There is this huge anti-Washington thing going on in the Republican Party," O'Sullivan said. "Now people are starting to perceive Cruz as not much different about being anti-Washington and he even has a phrase, which was pretty smart to come out with — the Washington cartel."
A consistent 40-plus percent of voters favor Trump in national polls in which he is matched against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who is usually shown winning — though not by a very large margin.
Clinton beats Cruz by a slightly wider margin in similar polls, but that could change if Cruz surges ahead in early contests and steals some of the spotlight from Trump.