Donald Trump holds a substantial lead in the southern region where Republican voters have their say on March 1, displaying remarkable strength for a twice-divorced New Yorker in Bible Belt states home to some of the nation's most conservative voters.
An online Bloomberg Politics poll shows the billionaire is backed by 37 percent of likely Republican presidential primary voters in the seven states surveyed, while Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas are tied at 20 percent.
Trump beats both Rubio and Cruz in hypothetical, one-on-one matchups in the region, weakening the argument that the front-runner's march toward the nomination would be slowed if it were only a two-man race.
The real estate mogul and former reality television star is also more popular in the region than Pope Francis and he gets more support than the pontiff when it comes to their differing views on the Christianity of building walls, including among a majority of Catholics, after poll respondents were read the two men's words.
The findings demonstrate the broad-based nature of Trump's support and how primary voters -- even conservatives and evangelicals who might find issues with his personal history -- have accepted him, making it harder for his rivals to take him down.
The front-runner is stronger than both Cruz and Rubio on questions about authenticity, protecting against terrorism, ability to win a general election and having a positive vision for the future, while he's weaker on questions about being a committed Christian and solid conservative.
"These voters rate Trump as the least conservative and the least committed Christian of the three top candidates, and yet he still leads," said pollster Doug Usher, who led the survey. "He's turning everything we thought we knew about Republican primary voters on its head."
Conducted Feb. 22-24 by Washington-based Purple Strategies, the poll included the so-called "SEC Primary" states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Nicknamed after the southeastern collegiate sports conference, they're among the 11 states that will award Republican delegates Tuesday from primaries and caucuses.
The online survey was done using a representative panel of likely Republican primary voters in those states and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
The poll findings reported the candidates' combined support across all seven states, but that isn't how Tuesday's elections will play out. The March 1 contests -- like those held in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- will award delegates on a proportional basis, so winning even some of the vote will translate to winning some of the 595 delegates at stake.
The rules change starting in the contests March 15, when states will start awarding delegates on a winner-take-all basis. A total of 1,237 are needed to win the Republican nomination.
Following last week's rare criticism of a U.S. presidential candidate by a pope, the poll found that Trump came out on top among likely Republican primary voters in the seven states.
The issue arose just two days before last week's South Carolina primary, when the pope criticized Trump's proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border and called such actions "not Christian." Trump responded by calling the pope's statement "disgraceful," before later softening his tone.
After they were read statements on the topic made by both men, 64 percent said they were inclined to agree with Trump, while 15 percent sided with the pope.
Overall, Trump is viewed more favorably than the pope among the likely Republican primary voters in the seven states, with 60 percent seeing the billionaire in a positive light and 54 percent viewing the pontiff that way. Rubio scores a higher favorable rating than both of them, at 65 percent.
After the top three candidates, support falls off significantly. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is backed in the region by 8 percent, while Ohio Governor John Kasich is at 6 percent.
When first and second choices are combined, the race is slightly closer. But Trump beats both Rubio and Cruz in one-on-one matchups, with Rubio getting the closest at 48 percent to 44 percent. Trump wins a contest with Cruz, 49 percent to 40 percent. If the race were between only Rubio and Cruz, Rubio wins 45 percent to 40 percent.
The race remains fluid in the southern region. More than half -- 53 percent -- say they could still be persuaded to support someone other than their first-choice candidate.
While the poll's overall findings are strong for Trump, there are some negatives. Among the five remaining Republican candidates, he's picked the most often by the poll's participants as someone they could never support, highlighting his polarizing nature even within his own party. A fifth said they could never back Trump, above the 17 percent who say that for Cruz and 10 percent for Rubio.
Only a slim majority of the likely Republican primary voters are supportive of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's position in opposition to holding confirmation hearings prior to November's election for a President Barack Obama appointee to fill the spot of deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Taking no action on a nominee and allowing the next president to name a replacement is supported by 51 percent, compared to 40 percent who say hearings and a vote should be held.
At 24 percent, Trump is the most trusted by likely Republican primary voters in the seven states to appoint a new justice, followed by Cruz at 22 percent. Four in 10 say choosing a new justice isn't a factor in their vote, while 20 percent say it's a major factor and 36 percent say it’s a minor one.
With former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg considering an independent presidential bid, the poll tested his favorability ratings among likely Republican primary voters in the seven states. More than half -- 56 percent -- had an unfavorable view of him, while 18 percent had a positive take on him and 26 percent didn't know enough about him to form an opinion.
Bloomberg was a three-term mayor of New York and is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.