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Republican Nomination Most Open in Decades

By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 5, 2007

For the first time in nearly 30 years, there is no breakaway front-runner for the Republican nomination as the first votes of Campaign 2008 loom, and a new Washington Post-ABC News poll underscores how open the GOP race remains.

Former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani maintains a double-digit lead over his main rivals, but most of his supporters back his candidacy only "somewhat," and he has yet to gain momentum among key primary voting groups or to distinguish himself as the best candidate for the party. Adding to the murkiness of the picture is that Republicans continue to be less satisfied with their candidate options than Democrats are with theirs.

In the new poll, a third of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they would vote for Giuliani if their state's primary or caucus were held today. That puts him 14 percentage points ahead of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and 17 points ahead of former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.).

Eleven percent said they would vote for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and 9 percent support former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Not since 1979 has the leading Republican candidate had less than 40 percent support in national polls in the November heading into an election year. That year Ronald Reagan was the early poll leader, as Giuliani is today, and he went on to win the Republican nomination and the presidency.

This year's GOP race is notable also because the national poll leader does not lead in either of the first two states to hold contests next year. Romney leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, according to state polls, with New Hampshire appearing exceedingly close.

More broadly, Republicans are closely divided on questions of who best represents the party's values and who is closest to them on the issues. Asked who best represents Republican "core values," poll respondents split among Giuliani (25 percent), McCain (24 percent), Thompson (19 percent) and Romney (17 percent).

Among white evangelical Protestants, Giuliani is competitive, but he runs only even with McCain and Thompson. Giuliani is at odds with the socially conservative wing of the GOP because of his support for abortion and gay rights.

Instead, Giuliani has sustained a year-long edge in national polls because of wide advantages on other key attributes. Republicans said by large margins that he is the strongest leader among the top candidates and has the best chance of defeating the Democratic nominee next year.

Giuliani also has significantly higher favorability ratings among Republicans than do any of the other top contenders. Seven in 10 have a positive impression of him, including a majority of white evangelical Protestants. Even so, his favorability ratings have dipped significantly among evangelicals and conservative Republicans since he announced his candidacy in February.

McCain weathered a series of personnel and financial setbacks over the summer, but he has rebounded from a campaign low of 12 percent a month ago to 19 percent today. Support for Thompson has changed little since he officially became a candidate two months ago. His 16 percent in the new poll is almost identical to where he was in July, when he was still in a testing-the-waters phase of his candidacy.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) leads the race for the Democratic nomination with 49 percent, followed by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) at 26 percent. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) has 12 percent. Obama bounced back from a low of 20 percent in last month's Post-ABC News poll.

Clinton has held generally large double-digit leads in Post-ABC News national polls throughout the campaign, but the competition appears tighter in Iowa. There, polls of likely caucus-goers indicate a tight three-way contest for delegates among Clinton, Obama and Edwards.

Clinton's national front-runner status is built on her advantages on several key attributes, all of which may yield dividends in the state-by-state contests.

Three-quarters of Democrats view Clinton favorably, which is somewhat higher than the results for Obama (67 percent) or Edwards (62 percent). More than twice as many have a "strongly" positive impression of Clinton as have that view of Edwards. And most of those who would back Clinton in their state's primary or caucus, "strongly" support her.

A majority of Democrats see Clinton as the strongest leader of the three top candidates, and she has the edge over Obama and Edwards as being best on the issues and the closest representative of the party's core values. Notably, given the increasingly sharp debate among the candidates over foreign policy, Clinton is seen as the best able to handle the situations in Iraq and involving Iran, by margins of better than 2 to 1.

She has no significant advantage on honesty, however, and both Obama and Edwards have begun to criticize her for a lack of candor on where she stands on a number of key issues. About a third, 34 percent, said Clinton is their party's most honest and trustworthy candidate, but nearly as many, 29 percent, said so of Obama. Eighteen percent said Edwards is tops on this key attribute.

A large and growing lead on "electability" also propels Clinton's candidacy. More than six in 10 Democrats now see her as the candidate who has the best shot at winning next November -- up 19 points from June.

The poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 among a random national sample of 1,131 adults, including 598 Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party and 436 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points for the Democratic sample and five points for the Republican sample.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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