By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, buoyed by strong support from Christian conservatives, has surged past three of his better-known presidential rivals and is now challenging former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the lead in the Iowa Republican caucuses, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll.
Huckabee has tripled his support in Iowa since late July, eclipsing former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Huckabee now runs nearly evenly with Romney, the longtime Iowa front-runner.
Huckabee's rise from dark horse to contender in Iowa is one more unexpected twist in a race that has remained fluid throughout the year and adds another unpredictable element to the competition for the GOP nomination. His support in Iowa appears stronger and more enthusiastic than that of his rivals.
Still, there are other signs in the poll suggesting that Romney remains the candidate to beat in the state and that gains for Huckabee may be harder to achieve in the next 43 days than they were over the past four months.
Romney outperforms Huckabee and other Republicans on key attributes, with two notable exceptions -- perceptions of which candidate best understands people's problems and which candidate is the most honest and trustworthy. On both, Romney and Huckabee are tied. At the same time, Iowa Republicans see the former Arkansas governor as less credible than Romney, Giuliani or McCain on some top issues.
The poll found that overall, 28 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers support Romney, while 24 percent support Huckabee. Thompson ran third in the poll at 15 percent, with Giuliani at about the same level, with 13 percent. McCain, whose Iowa campaign appeared to derail earlier this year over his stance on immigration, had 6 percent and was tied with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who rose from 2 percent in July.
Huckabee's gains were concentrated among the party's conservative core. He saw a 28-percentage-point jump in support from evangelical Protestants, to 44 percent, and a 19-point rise among conservatives, to 30 percent. Among previous caucus attendees, his support increased from 9 percent to 29 percent.
Huckabee probably benefited from the decision of Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and others to quit the race. Brownback and Huckabee had been competing for many of the same religious and conservative voters. Moreover, Huckabee's gain in this poll does not come at the expense of those still running, all of whom are faring about the same as they were in July.
But almost half of Huckabee's supporters (48 percent) said they would definitely vote for him in January and only a quarter said there was a good chance that they would change their minds before the caucuses. In contrast, just 29 percent of Romney's backers said they would definitely vote for him, while 42 percent said there was a good chance that they could vote for someone else at the caucuses.
The enthusiasm among Huckabee supporters was striking, particularly in a year in which Republicans have been considerably dissatisfied with the field of candidates. Half of those who now back the former Arkansas governor said they are very enthusiastic about him, compared with 28 percent of Romney's backers.
But despite these advantages, Huckabee's support comes almost exclusively from certain groups of voters. His challenge will be to expand his appeal.
Nearly seven in 10 of his backers are evangelical Protestants, and nearly three-quarters attend religious services at least weekly. Just 5 percent of moderate and liberal GOP voters back his candidacy. Romney, by contrast, has wider support.
It is also primarily social issues that galvanize Huckabee's backers.
More than four in 10 Huckabee voters call abortion or broader moral or values issues the race's top one or two concerns. That is nearly double the number of Romney supporters to highlight these issues. Overall, three-quarters of likely GOP voters think that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, and among the 24 percent who want the procedure to be unlawful in every instance, 36 percent support Huckabee and 22 percent Romney.
But a slew of issues drive likely GOP caucus-goers. A quarter of those surveyed said immigration is their biggest or second-biggest concern when considering whom to back on Jan. 3. The same percentage, 24 percent, highlighted the war in Iraq, and nearly as many, 21 percent, singled out terrorism and national security.
Ten percent or more cited five other issues: the economy, health care, abortion, taxes, and morals and family values. Overall, eight issues ranked in the double digits, making the discussion in the Republican contest potentially more wide-ranging than that on the Democratic side. Among likely Democratic caucus-goers, only three issues reach 10 percent, and two -- Iraq and health care -- dominate voters' concerns.
On immigration, Romney has an edge: 27 percent said the former Massachusetts governor is best on the issue, while Huckabee and Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) each received 13 percent. No candidate is clearly preferred on the other top issue, Iraq, with Giuliani, McCain and Romney each considered the best by about two in 10. Giuliani doubles up the competition, however, on handling the terrorism fight.
Romney tops the field as the candidate most trusted to handle the economy and the federal budget deficit. He and Huckabee are preferred by about equal percentages on social issues, such as abortion and same-sex civil unions.
Campaign activity on the GOP side appears to be more subdued than it is among Democrats, perhaps in part because national leaders Giuliani and McCain are not prioritizing Iowa's caucus.
About six in 10 likely caucus-goers said they have been called by one of the campaigns. Twenty-nine percent have attended a campaign event, up six percentage points from July, but far less than the percentage of Democrats who have attended an event (52 percent). A third of GOP voters have visited one of the candidates' Web sites and 29 percent have received e-mail. About one in five has spoken with or shaken hands with one or more of the GOP candidates. Fifteen percent have contributed money.
Romney, who has pinned his bid for the nomination on success in Iowa and New Hampshire, is widely seen as the candidate who has made the biggest effort in the Hawkeye state. More than six in 10 said that he has "campaigned the hardest in Iowa." That's up 14 percentage points from July, and no other candidate scored in the double digits on that question.
Romney has an advantage on the question of who has the "best experience to be president," after a 10-point increase from July, when he was about even with Giuliani and McCain. Romney had held a marginally significant edge on "best understands problems of people like you," but while he has stayed at 21 percent on this question, Huckabee has soared from 10 percent to 25 percent.
In July, Romney had the lead on "most honest and trustworthy" at 21 percent. He has risen to 25 percent, but Huckabee jumped from 10 percent to 26 percent.
Romney and Giuliani share the top spot as the field's "strongest leader" and as the Republicans with the best shot at capturing the White House in November 2008. About one in eight said Huckabee is the most electable Republican, while 1 percent thought so in July. About a quarter of evangelical Protestants now think Huckabee is the GOP's top option; four months ago, that percentage was less than 1 percent.
The poll was conducted by telephone Nov. 14 to 18 among a random sample of 400 likely GOP caucus-goers. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.