Clinton, Giuliani Maintain Leads, But GOP Shows Signs of Shifting

By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York holds a solid lead over her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, while the contest for the Republican nomination appears even more unsettled than it did when it began five months ago, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Clinton's lead remains steady over her two principal challengers, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, and the poll contains troubling news for both. Obama's support has softened noticeably, highlighting the challenge he faces in turning high interest in his candidacy into votes. Edwards, meanwhile, has lost ground nationally over the past few months.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani remains the leader in the GOP race, but the poll suggests that the surge in support he received after declaring his candidacy has stalled and that his backing of abortion rights and gay rights has caused more Republicans to turn away from him.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona runs second in the GOP race, but the poll results raise questions about his candidacy. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has spent millions on television ads already this year, has in some ways become an attractive alternative over the past few months, and former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee shows the potential to quickly make the GOP contest a four-way battle.

The poll provides a revealing snapshot of the 2008 presidential race as the candidates gather this week for a pair of debates in New Hampshire, which will hold the first primary next year. Tonight, eight Democrats will debate in Manchester, and 10 Republicans are scheduled to face off on Tuesday night. Thompson is not participating.

The debates are sponsored by CNN, WMUR-TV and the New Hampshire Union Leader. CNN will carry the debates live from 7 to 9 p.m.

A first-blush look at the Post-ABC News poll suggests no dramatic change in the two races, despite five months of intensive campaigning on both sides. But the findings underscore potential volatility on both sides as well as the obstacles facing many of the serious contenders.

In the Republican race, Giuliani leads the field with 34 percent, followed by McCain at 20 percent, Thompson at 13 percent and Romney at 10 percent. No other Republican receives more than 2 percent. Those results showed no significant change since the last poll in April.

In the poll, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were asked to weigh Giuliani, McCain and Romney against one another on a series of leadership, personal and electoral attributes. Thompson was left out of the comparison because he had not yet formed a presidential committee. He took that step Friday.

Giuliani's leadership qualities appeal to Republicans. A majority of Republicans said he is the strongest leader, the most inspiring, the person they would most trust to handle a crisis and the candidate with the best chance of winning a general election.

McCain had a narrow advantage as the candidate with the best experience to be president, while Giuliani was judged to best understand "the problems of people like you." Republicans in the survey were nearly equally likely to see McCain and Giuliani as the most honest and trustworthy.

In several of these measures, however, Giuliani slipped from a February poll that asked similar questions. His standing as the most inspiring candidate dropped 12 percentage points between then and the most recent poll, his support as the candidate who best understands people's problems dropped 11 points, and his standing as the strongest leader dropped eight percentage points.

Giuliani encountered turbulence over the abortion issue after the first GOP debate a month ago. In response he offered a statement affirming his support for abortion rights while making clear his personal opposition to abortion.

The high-profile discussion of his views on social issues may prove costly, according to the poll. Half of Republicans say those views make them less likely to support Giuliani.

While that percentage is not significantly different than it was in February, opposition to him has hardened among many of those Republicans. Two-thirds of those who expressed concern about his positions on social issues said in this poll that there is no chance they would support him for the nomination. Overall, the percentage of Republicans who definitely would not support Giuliani has risen from less than a quarter to one-third.

Romney's gains are small but perceptible. His national standing overall has not changed since the February Post-ABC News poll, but on many attributes he is seen more positively than he was then. While he continues to trail Giuliani and McCain on these measures, the percentages who see him as the strongest leader of the three, as the one who best understands their problems and as the most inspiring have all doubled.

But Romney's religious affiliation continues to present an obstacle to his candidacy. Thirty percent of Republicans said they are less likely to support a candidate for president who is Mormon -- a number unchanged from February.

Republicans judged McCain as less viable in a general election in the new poll than they did three months ago, denting what had been seen by his advisers as one of his most effective weapons in the fight for the GOP nod.

In the Democratic race, Clinton led with 42 percent, with Obama second at 27 percent and Edwards third at 11 percent. Clinton and Obama's numbers were essentially unchanged from an April poll, but Edwards dropped six percentage points.

Edwards has pinned his hopes for the nomination on winning the Iowa caucuses and using that momentum in subsequent contests. The new poll underscores how much his candidacy hinges on that strategy.

Clinton's front-runner status is built on a huge lead over her rivals among women. She and Obama run equally among men, but she has a 2-1 advantage over him among women. She also runs much better among hard-core Democrats, rather than Democratic-leaning independents, where she and Obama are neck and neck.

Clinton was seen as the strongest leader of the three and dominated Obama and Edwards on the question of who was best experienced to be president. Sixty-six percent of Democrats cited her as best experienced, compared with 19 percent who said Edwards and just 9 percent who said Obama, who has served only 2 1/2 years in the Senate.

Clinton stumbles somewhat on the question of integrity, with just 28 percent calling her the most honest and trustworthy. Of the three candidates, Clinton was seen as the most electable in a general election and as the closest to poll respondents on the issues.

A narrow plurality said Obama is the most inspiring among the three, but the poll highlighted something that many Democratic strategists -- some not affiliated with other campaigns and some who are -- see as his biggest challenge.

In February, 60 percent of those who said they backed Obama said they did so strongly, but in the new poll, that had fallen to 43 percent. A majority of his backers now say they only support him "somewhat."

"Nobody's gone from 0 to 60 in American politics faster than Barack Obama," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. "He is hugely talented, but he needs a good second act."

The entry of former vice president Al Gore would shake up the race, but it would not threaten Clinton's double-digit lead. With Gore in the race, Clinton would have 35 percent, Obama 23 percent, Gore 17 percent and Edwards 8 percent.

The poll was conducted by telephone May 29 to June 1 among a random sample of 1,205 adults. Results from the full poll have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. Sampling error margins are higher for subgroups.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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