WASHINGTON -- Democratic voters increasingly are focused on nominating the most electable presidential candidate, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama fares better than New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton against prospective Republican rivals.
Less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the nationwide survey finds races in both parties that are fluid enough to defy predictions and could be reshaped by results from the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Among Republicans, five candidates are in competitive positions -- four of them effectively tied for second place. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to lead, supported by 27% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
Among Democrats, Clinton is backed by 45% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, up 6 percentage points from a poll taken two weeks earlier that showed her standing eroding. The modest rebound came despite recent controversy over the tone of her campaign toward Obama.
Obama is at 27%, up 3 points, and former North Carolina senator John Edwards is third at 15%.
In a shift, Democratic voters are almost evenly divided between those who want a nominee who agrees with them on almost all issues and those who want one with the best chance of beating the Republican. Last month, they preferred an ideological match by 3-2.
"The Democrats have become more comfortable with their field generally, so they think they'd all be a fairly decent president," says Democratic consultant Peter Fenn. "Then the question becomes, 'Who has the best chance of winning this thing?' "
Republican voters by about 3-2 continue to want a nominee who agrees with them on most issues -- a sign, perhaps that ideological differences among the GOP contenders remain a significant factor.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was second among Republicans, at 16%. Tied at 14% were Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
In hypothetical matchups for the general presidential election, Clinton and Obama each led Giuliani, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Romney, although at times narrowly.
Obama was somewhat stronger, besting Giuliani by 6 points, Huckabee by 11 and Romney by 18. Clinton had an edge of 1 point over Giuliani, 9 points over Huckabee and 6 points over Romney.
Clinton strategist Mark Penn says efforts to compare the general-election appeal of the two leading Democrats are "not realistic … because people don't have much information about (Obama)."
Clinton, on the other hand, continues to evoke the strongest positive and negative reactions. Asked what kind of president the candidates would be, she led the field as the most likely prospect to be a "great" president, predicted by 19%. She also led the field as the most likely to be a "terrible" president, predicted by 18%.