A softening of underlying confidence in Rudolph W. Giuliani, including some damage on the abortion issue, could hearten his current -- and future -- opponents for the Republican presidential nomination.
Giuliani's hardly in trouble; he maintains large leads over his opponents on key personal attributes including leadership and electability. But he's lost ground on empathy, honesty and inspiration; his support is not strong -- and a third of Republicans now flatly rule him out because of his position on abortion, up from just under a quarter earlier this year.
Giuliani remains the Republican frontrunner, with overall candidate preferences stable compared with an ABC News/Washington Post poll in mid-April. But just 36 percent of his supporters are "strongly" for him, and his backing is notably lower among conservatives -- a core Republican group -- than among moderates. Indeed, it's moderate Republicans (and the party's relatively few liberals) who propel Giuliani to a clear lead.
On the Democratic side of the 2008 contest, Hillary Clinton continues to lead on most personal attributes and in voter preferences alike, with no significant changes in her or Barack Obama's positions. Support has slipped slightly for John Edwards.
Clinton owes her frontrunner status to women; they're much more apt than men to favor her for the nomination, and significantly more likely to pick her from among the leading candidates as the best on a range of personal attributes. Democratic women, for example, are 16 points more likely than men to pick Clinton over Obama as the "most inspiring" candidate. (Men are nine points more likely than women to pick Obama as inspirational.)
And 53 percent of Clinton's supporters are "strongly" for her, substantially higher, for example, than Giuliani's strong support.
A potential concern for Clinton is that she does best with less-educated Democrats, whose turnout is less assured; another is that Obama leads her on honesty and trustworthiness. Still, experience is her trump card, she remains competitive with Obama among African-Americans, does best with committed Democrats (as opposed to Democratic-leaning independents) and stands the most to gain if Al Gore stays away.
The candidates meet in another of their debates this week -- the Democrats tonight, the Republicans on Tuesday.
There's room in the Republican race for Fred Thompson, the ex-senator-turned-actor who's climbing into the contest. Including Thompson (and leaving out former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's flirted with the race but not committed), Giuliani has 34 percent support among leaned Republicans, John McCain 20 percent, Thompson 13 and Mitt Romney 10. Each is within three points of his mid-April position.
Among the Democrats, setting aside Gore, Clinton has 42 percent support, Obama 27 percent and Edwards 11 percent. Edwards did six points better in April.
None of the other candidates, in the Republican or Democratic contest, receives more than two percent support. Results are essentially the same (within two points on all candidates) for the subset of leaned Republicans and leaned Democrats who report being registered to vote.
Focusing on the two leading candidates underscores both their stronger and less strong suits. Clinton's supported by 51 percent of women vs. 32 percent of men. Indeed, among men only, Clinton and Obama are essentially tied.