Attention to the 2008 presidential race is extraordinarily high, especially for this early in the campaign. Partisans are by and large happy with their choices -- and initial support levels are showing some shifts in the preliminary jockeying for position.
It all makes for a hearty stew of election politics, with strong advantages but also serious hazards for the front-running candidates -- on one side, the sharp polarization inspired by Hillary Clinton (whose favorable rating has slipped under 50 percent for the first time in years); on the other, Republican concerns about Rudy Giuliani's positions on abortion and gay marriage -- with a range of subtexts on race, religion, age and more.
Even with the first nominating contests 11 months off and the general election 20 months away, 65 percent of Americans are closely following the 2008 race. That compares to just 37 percent of Democrats who were paying close attention at roughly this time (actually two months later) in the 2004 cycle (when the Republican nomination was uncontested).
And most people -- particularly Democrats -- like what they see. Eighty-six percent of Democrats say they're satisfied with the choice of candidates for the party's nomination, up sharply from their 64 to 69 percent satisfaction in ABC News/Washington Post polls in the 2000 and 2004 races.
On the Republican side, 73 percent are relatively content with their choices -- still a big majority, albeit 13 points lower than Democratic satisfaction. Indeed Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to be dissatisfied with their crop of candidates, 24 percent vs. 12 percent; and half as likely to be "very satisfied," 14 percent vs. 29 percent.
It follows that Democratic front-runners, Clinton and Barack Obama, have notably stronger support within their party than do the Republican leaders, Giuliani and John McCain. For all, of course, there's plenty of room -- and time -- to move.
Interests differ as well. Democrats cite the war in Iraq as the single biggest issue in their choice for the nomination, followed at some distance by the economy and health care; just 3 percent mention terrorism or security. Among Republicans, by contrast, terrorism, the war and the economy share top billing as voting concerns.
PREFERENCES and RISKS -- As the race has shaped up in the last month there's been a significant shift on the Republican side, with Giuliani gaining 10 points to a 2-1 lead over his closest competitor, John McCain, who's slipped a bit. The main cause: movement among evangelical white Protestants, a key Republican group.
But there's risk as Giuliani's positions become better known. Nearly half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they're less likely to vote for him given his past support for legal abortion and gay civil unions. Of that group, half -- 23 percent of all leaned Republicans -- say there's no chance they could vote for Giuliani on account of those views.
Indeed, even among Giuliani's current supporters, more than a third, 36 percent, say they're less likely to support him because of his position on these issues. (Among Republicans who support other candidates, that rises to 54 percent.)
Among the Democrats, Clinton still leads, but by less of a margin than last month, given a seven-point gain in support for Barack Obama. His advance has come overwhelmingly among African-Americans, many of whom likely have learned more about Obama in recent news coverage.