McCain Moves Into Lead; Obama Gains on Clinton

Caucus poll
By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 14, 2008

The first contests of the 2008 presidential campaign have led to a dramatic shake-up in public opinion nationally, with Sen. John McCain now leading the Republican field and Sen. Barack Obama all but erasing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's once-overwhelming advantage among Democrats, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As the campaigns head into the next round of voting this week, the competitive contests in both parties have captured the public's attention. Four in five are closely tuned in, and a third are "very closely" following the races, a sharp increase from a month ago, and well higher than the proportions saying so at this stage in 2000 or 2004.

Clinton had dominated in national polls from the outset, holding a 30-point advantage as recently as a month ago, but the competitiveness of the first two contests appears to have reverberated among Democrats across the country.

In the new poll, 42 percent of likely Democratic voters support Clinton (N.Y.), and 37 percent back Obama (Ill.). Clinton's support is down 11 percentage points from a month ago, with Obama's up 14. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) held third place with 11 percent, followed by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) at 2 percent.

The big gains by McCain (Ariz.), which come after his victory in the New Hampshire primary, mark the first time he has topped the Republican field in a Post-ABC News national survey. His rise mirrors a dramatic tumble for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who led most national polls throughout 2007.

Giuliani, who finished well back in both Iowa and New Hampshire, ranks fourth in the new poll at 15 percent. McCain, meanwhile, has more than double the support he had a month ago and now stands at 28 percent among likely GOP voters. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who scored a big victory in the Iowa caucuses, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the runner-up in both early contests, sit just above Giuliani, at 20 and 19 percent, respectively.

Former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) registers 8 percent, in single digits for the first time, with only half the support he had in early November. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who got 10 percent of the votes in Iowa and 8 percent in New Hampshire, is at 3 percent; Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) is at 2 percent.

The sudden turnaround in national sentiment partly reflects the continued uncertainty among Republican voters about their field of candidates. Although McCain sits atop the GOP field, only a third of his supporters back him "strongly."

And this week's primaries may further unsettle the race. Victories by McCain over Romney in Michigan on Tuesday and in Saturday's South Carolina GOP primary, where his main rival appears to be Huckabee, would stamp McCain as the front-runner, but stumbles in either contest could further disrupt the GOP nomination battle.

In the Democratic race, opinions shifted decisively after Obama's big win in Iowa and Clinton's narrow victory in New Hampshire.

Despite the dip in support for Clinton, 68 percent of those backing her are "strongly" behind her candidacy. But Obama's support has both grown and deepened: Fifty-six percent are solidly behind him, up from 41 percent last month.

Clinton continues to lead Obama among Democrats, although by a slimmed-down, eight-point edge, while Obama has a 13-point edge among independents. Independent voters helped the senator from Illinois win Iowa and broke heavily for him in New Hampshire. Many of the upcoming contests limit participation to registered Democrats, which Clinton's advisers see as an advantage.

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