By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 5, 2007
As the Republican presidential candidates gather this morning in Des Moines for their fourth debate, Iowa GOP voters are expressing limited enthusiasm for the field of current and potential aspirants, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Their views appear to be a microcosm of GOP sentiment across the country and point to a wide open battle for the nomination.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has emerged as the early leader in the campaign for Iowa. But his support is both soft and shallow, suggesting that the Republican race in the state, as nationally, remains extremely fluid.
Just 19 percent of likely GOP caucus attendees said they were "very satisfied" with the field of candidates -- far below satisfaction levels among Iowa Democrats -- and poll respondents were badly fractured when asked to rate the candidates on political and personal attributes.
Romney's lead is built in large part on perceptions among Iowa voters that he has worked the state far harder than any of his rivals. Yet, despite the time, money and television advertising that Romney has showered on the state, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is seen as similarly electable, as experienced and about as strong a leader as the former Massachusetts governor.
Compounding an already muddled picture is the fact that former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, not yet an announced candidate, is running about even with Giuliani, though he lags well behind other top candidates on many personal and political characteristics.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is struggling to rebuild his candidacy after the early July exodus of much of his top staff and amid his continuing money woes, is now well off the lead in Iowa. Iowa Republican strategists said his support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul badly hurt him in the state.
In the Post-ABC News poll, Romney led the field with 26 percent, with Giuliani at 14 percent and Thompson at 13 percent. About four in 10 Romney supporters said they back him strongly, however, and three in 10 of his supporters said they are "very satisfied" with their choices.
The poll showed McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee tied at 8 percent, followed by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo at 5 percent, former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson at 4 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 2 percent and California Rep. Duncan Hunter at 1 percent.
There was limited interest in a possible candidacy by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who has talked about running for much of the year. If he were on the list of candidates, he would register 4 percent.
The poll was conducted by telephone between July 26 and July 31 among 402 likely Republican caucus participants. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus five percentage points.
The candidates will debate early today on the campus of Drake University. The 90-minute session, which will begin at 9 a.m. Eastern time, will be moderated by ABC News's George Stephanopoulos and carried on ABC's "This Week."
The debate comes six days before the Iowa GOP straw poll in Ames, a quadrennial test of organizing strength for presidential candidates. Romney became the overwhelming favorite to win the nonbinding test after Giuliani and McCain decided in June not to compete actively in what has long been an intensive and costly organizational contest.
Their absence has raised the stakes for Romney and has given hope to some of those in the lower tiers of the GOP race that a surprisingly good showing could give their campaigns needed momentum. The history of the straw polls, however, is that they often produce political casualties, sometimes within days of the results.
The portrait of the Iowa Republican electorate that emerges from the new Post-ABC News poll is strikingly different from what came out of a parallel poll of Iowa Democrats taken at the same time. Both polls measured attitudes of likely participants in Iowa's precinct caucuses, the first event on the nomination calendar in January.
The polls surveyed attitudes of party activists, a small percentage of the overall electorate, but those most likely to come out on a cold January night and spend hours with neighbors in living rooms, church basements and other venues debating and then voting for their favored candidates.
Among both Republicans and Democrats, nine in 10 Iowa voters said they are paying close attention to the race. Republicans, like Democrats, are already engaged in the intense caucus-organizing efforts of the campaigns. More than six in 10 Republicans said they have already been called by at least one of the campaigns; 71 percent of Democrats said they have been contacted on the phone.
The similarities end there. Fifty-three percent of Democrats said they are very satisfied with the field of candidates, compared with the one-in-five likely Republican caucus-goers who described themselves as very satisfied. While eight in 10 Republican voters said the Iraq war was worth fighting, nine in 10 Democratic voters said it was not.
Half of the Democratic voters polled said they are looking for a candidate who emphasizes fresh ideas and a new direction. But seven in 10 Republican voters said they prize strength and experience over new ideas in their candidate selection.
A further sign of instability in the Republican race that emerges from the survey is the diversity of opinion on key candidate attributes. By a wide margin, Romney is seen as the candidate who has campaigned the hardest in Iowa, but on most other factors, many of the candidates remain under consideration. For example, asked which candidate is the most honest and trustworthy, 21 percent identified Romney, 11 percent Fred Thompson, 10 percent each naming McCain and Huckabee, with two others at 7 percent.
When voters were asked to rate the candidates on various attributes, Romney emerged as the clear choice on only one measure. Forty-nine percent said he had campaigned the hardest in Iowa. He had narrower advantages over Giuliani on which candidate "best understands the problems of people like you" and which candidate is "closest to you on the issues." In each case, however, he was cited as tops by fewer than a quarter of Iowa Republicans.
Republicans were fragmented on many other political and personal characteristics. They divided between Giuliani and Romney as to who is the strongest leader, closely divided among Giuliani, Romney and McCain on who is best experienced, split between Giuliani and Romney on who has the best chance to win the general election, and relatively closely divided among McCain, Giuliani and Romney on who can best deal with Iraq.
McCain's advocacy of President Bush's troop buildup policy has not translated into political support in Iowa. Among those who strongly support the decision to fight the war, he received 5 percent.
Fred Thompson was rated third- or fourth-best on most attributes, generally at about 10 percent. That suggests his allure as a potentially serious candidate is based as much, or more, on dissatisfaction with the rest of the field as it is on specific knowledge about Thompson or his record.
Huckabee and Brownback, two of the most socially conservative candidates in the field, have engaged in occasionally vituperative competition for support among evangelical Christians in Iowa. The poll shows Huckabee has made greater inroads.
Romney led among evangelical Protestants with a quarter of the vote, with Huckabee second at 17 percent, followed by Fred Thompson, Giuliani and McCain, all hovering near 10 percent. Brownback and Tancredo received 7 percent each among evangelicals.
Huckabee is an appealing candidate to many evangelicals. One in five said that he is closest to them on the issues, and the same percentage said that he is the candidate who best understands their problems and that he is the most honest and trustworthy in the Republican field.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.