WASHINGTON - Ahead of Thursday’s first Republican television debate, billionaire businessman Donald Trump has jumped to the front of the conservative party’s 2016 presidential candidate field nationally, holding that position even after a spate of incendiary comments by him about Mexican migrants, other party candidates and party leaders, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has found.

The poll found that 19 percent of Republican primary voters picked Trump, the real-estate magnate, as their first choice for president, followed by 15 percent for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and 14 percent for Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who led the field in the last Journal/NBC survey, in June. Trump who infuriated Bush by criticising Mexican immigrants.

Trump aimed specific ire at Mexico, claiming he would build a “great, great wall” on the Mexican-American border, and accusing the country of sending rapists and drug smugglers to the United States.  “The US has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems,” he said. The new poll, whose full results will be released Monday, was based on a survey conducted July 26-30, after Trump made widely publicized controversial statements, such as when he disparaged former Republican presidential nominee and senior party leader John McCain, the Journal reported. In an interview last month, Trump said he did not consider McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, a war hero.

“People that fought hard and weren’t captured and went through a lot, they get no credit. Nobody even talks about them. They’re like forgotten. And I think that’s a shame, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said. The differences among the top-tier candidates are small enough that they are within the poll’s margin of sampling error. Still, the double-digit jump among Republicans picking Trump as their first choice - up from 1 percent in the June poll was significant, it was pointed out.

“What’s more, Republicans who don’t see Mr. Trump as their first choice seem to be warming to him,” the Journal said. “The share of (Republican) voters who pick him as second choice rose to 11 percent in the new survey from 3 percent in June.” The poll could be a factor in determining which candidates appear in this Thursday’s prime-time candidate debate, the first of the Republican primary campaign. The event is being hosted by Fox News, which is limiting the 9 p.m. debate to 10 of the 17 declared GOP candidates, choosing those who rank highest in the five most recent national polls released by Tuesday.

Candidates who don’t make the cut will be relegated to a separate forum to be held before the main event on Thursday. The new survey also underscores the unsettled nature of the primary race as Republican voters survey a large field, including many lesser-known candidates. Trump, who announced his presidential campaign in mid-June, has the advantage of high name recognition, celebrity appeal and a populist message that taps into a powerful anti-Washington vein in the electorate.

In an effort to lower expectations, Trump, the front-runner,  said he is not a debater, and that only know how to handle matters.  “May be in do terribly. Maybe I’ll do great,” he said.

The political world - including his 16 Republican rivals - is waiting to find out whether he’ll knock them dead or shoot himself in the foot in the first televised showdown of the 2016 Republican primary cycle, in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans arena. Trump will have to stand shoulder to shoulder with niThe poll found that almost the entire Republican field seemed to suffer at least a temporary setback as a result of Trump’s abrupt rise.

Most major candidates lost ground compared with last month’s poll. One exception was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who was picked as a first choice by 9 percent up from 4 percent last month.  Cruz, like Trump, has been campaigning as an outsider with a blunt anti-establishment message. Trump had a particularly strong showing among Republican poll respondents who said it is more important for their party’s nominee to be a strong leader than it is to share their views on issues. Trump does somewhat better among Republican women than do other candidates: 20% of female primary voters name him as their first choice, followed by 16 percent who pick Bush.

In the race for a spot on this week’s main debate stage, the most uncertainty surrounds the fate of three candidates who are on the cusp of making the top-10 event-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; Texas Governor Rick Perry and Ohio Governor John Kasich. In the new Journal/NBC poll, all three were picked as first choice by 3% of  Republican voters. For other candidates who are expected to be part of the top-10 debate, the poll found that 10 percent favoured retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, putting him in fourth place; 9 percent went for Cruz; 6 percent for former Governor Mike Huckabee; 6 percent for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and 5 percent for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio saw the biggest drop in support compared with the June survey, when 14 percent had named him first choice.

At the back of the pack, the new poll found that 1 percent were for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is of Indian origin, 1 percent for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and less than 1% for former corporate executive Carly Fiorina.The poll of 1,000 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. For the 252 GOP primary voters surveyed, the margin of error was plus or minus 6.17 percentage points.