NEW YORK (AFP) – Running on a populist message of isolationism and spite for President Barack Obama "the foreigner," billionaire businessman Donald Trump is romping to early polling glory in the White House race.
In less than a month, the 64-year-old known best for his multiple marriages, garish skyscrapers and reality TV show, has jumped from 10 to 19 percent support among Republican voters, tying with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, according to a CNN poll released this week.
That puts the real estate mogul with the signature comb-over ahead of a crowded field of more established potential Republican contenders, including conservative Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin (12 percent) and Mitt Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts (11 percent).
But more than four in 10 Republicans said they would not like to see the real estate mogul enter the 2012 race, the poll found.
Ranked the 420th wealthiest person this year by Forbes magazine with $2.7 billion, the man nicknamed "The Donald" is nonetheless vowing to ask voters for campaign donations, just like other candidates.
"I think it's important for voters to invest in the direction of the country," Trump told USA Today in an interview Tuesday.
Yet that claim came after Trump repeatedly indicated he is willing to dip into $600 million of his personal fortune to run for the highest office in the land.
"Part of the beauty of me is I'm very rich," he told ABC's "Good Morning in America" last month.
The extra funds would help him match the $1 billion expected price tag of a White House run. He says he will decide in June whether to make it official.
Recent successes in a series of polls have made Trump suddenly seem more of a viable candidate.
But many political observers remain unconvinced that the rebranded Republican who has switched party affiliations over the years is serious about running, claiming he is simply courting media attention -- partly to drum up attention for his flagging reality show.
If he doesn't get the support he needs from the Republican Party establishment to become the GOP nominee, Trump has threatened to run as an independent.
Such a move would split the vote of Republican-leaning independents and spell trouble for other conservative candidates seeking to unite their divided party against incumbent Obama.
"I think the Republicans are very concerned that I (may) run as an independent," Trump told The Wall Street Journal on Monday.
"The concern is if I don't win (the Republican primary), will I run as an independent? And I think the answer is probably yes... I'm not doing it for any other reason. I like winning."
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour played down Trump's early polling success.
"For some voters, it may have just been that pure and simple: I've heard of Donald Trump, nobody else I've heard of I want to be for, so I'll just park my vote for this little poll with Donald Trump," Barbour told New Hampshire's WKXL Radio.
The White House dismissed Trump's flirtation with a presidential run as a "sideshow" after he made himself standard-bearer of a fringe movement claiming that Obama, who was born in the US state of Hawaii, was not really born on US soil -- and therefore can't be a legitimate president.
"I think there's zero chance that Donald Trump would ever be hired by the American people to do this job," Obama's campaign adviser David Plouffe told ABC's "This Week" program on Sunday.
Trump's embracing of the so-called "birther" movement has brought controversy but also huge publicity that feeds into his self-appointed role as savior of a failing state.
"I hate what's happening to the country," the host of NBC television's "Celebrity Apprentice" told the Journal.
His responses to basic foreign policy questions have also fueled suspicions that Trump's bid is simply an elaborate hoax.
He told the newspaper he was "only interested in Libya if we take the oil" and that, as president, he would tell China: "You're either going to shape up, or I'm going to tax you at 25 percent for all the products you send into this country."
The United States has become a "laughing stock" and "whipping post," he repeatedly says. He told hundreds of conservative activists in February that as president, he would take in "hundreds of billions from countries that are screwing us."
Romney, who took the first step toward possibly launching an official campaign Monday by opening an exploratory committee, took a hit in the latest CNN poll by dropping from first to second behind the Trump-Huckabee tie, but observers cautioned the picture may be more complex.
"Are Republicans switching from Romney to Trump? Some are, but it's a lot more complicated than that, as you would expect with 11 potential hats in the ring," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.