Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister riding a wave of support from fundamentalist Christians, tops Mitt Romney for first place in a new Des Moines Register poll of Iowans planning to attend Thursday's Republican caucuses.
In a battle of former governors from Arkansas and Massachusetts, Huckabee leads Romney, 32 percent to 26 percent.
"I really like it that he is a religious man and social conservative. That is pretty important to me, especially the right to life," said Huckabee supporter Alyssa Stealey, 20, of Charter Oak, who is also drawn to his call for tax reform.
The size of Huckabee's lead is virtually unchanged from the last Iowa Poll taken in late November, despite Romney's hard-charging effort to regain the top spot that he held earlier in the year.
The new poll, taken over four days ending on Sunday, shows a resurgent Arizona Sen. John McCain grabbing third place in the Republican race for the first-in-the-nation caucuses. McCain tallies support from 13 percent in the poll -- a 6-point improvement since late November.
"He is not too far to the left or too far to the right," said Keith Olejniczak, a 42-year-old poll participant from Cedar Rapids who makes McCain his second choice after Huckabee because of McCain's experience and leadership ability. "I think (both candidates) could get more things done from both sides of Congress," said Olejniczak, who works in transportation.
On McCain's heels in the poll at 9 percent each are Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose support in Iowa has gradually been building, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
A win in Iowa can serve as a springboard to success in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Jan. 8, and other states with early primary contests. But even a third-place finish in the caucuses could give a candidate a boost, especially if he exceeds expectations.
The latest Des Moines Register poll shows former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani falling back in the pack. Giuliani is favored by just 5 percent of Iowans who say they definitely or probably will attend the Republican caucuses on Jan. 3.
In the late November poll, Giuliani placed third at 13 percent. He has campaigned little in Iowa since then as he pursues a more unconventional strategy of cultivating support in delegate-rich states that come later on the nominating calendar.
California Rep. Duncan Hunter and former Ambassador Alan Keyes round out the new poll by drawing 1 percent each. That leaves 4 percent who are unsure about their preferred candidate.
The poll shows there remains enough indecision among likely caucus participants to scramble both the race for first place between Huckabee and Romney, and the battle for third. Nearly one-half of caucusgoers say they could still be persuaded to support another candidate.
Huckabee, whose Iowa support has soared in the last two months, continues to benefit from the backing of religious conservatives who have an affinity for him and the values he espouses:
- Nearly one-half of likely Republican caucusgoers describe themselves as born-again or fundamentalist Christians. Within that large group, Huckabee outpolls Romney, 47 percent to 20 percent. Romney has faced questions about his religious standing as a Mormon.