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.
Clinton's support, meanwhile, slipped by five points. The reason, again, is entirely blacks. In ABC/Post polls in December and January, she led Obama among African-Americans by 60-20 percent. Today it's a 44-33 percent race among blacks, with Obama in front.
Removing two well-known, unannounced contenders from the equation helps both the leaders. Without Newt Gingrich as a candidate, Giuliani's support jumps to 53 percent, while McCain's remains essentially unchanged. And without Al Gore as a candidate on the Democratic side, Clinton gains some ground over Obama.
Gore, for his part, seems unlikely to get much of a bounce from the best-documentary Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth." Eighty-seven percent in this survey, which was completed before the award, said it wouldn't impact their choice. The rest split evenly between saying it would make them more likely -- or less likely -- to support him.
DEMS -- Clinton's public profile is highly polarized, though that's perhaps more relevant to the general election than to the primary campaign. Among all Americans, 49 percent view her favorably, but 48 percent unfavorably. Moreover, after a period of recent balance, more again strongly dislike her -- 35 percent -- than strongly like her, 25 percent.
It's inspired by partisanship, perhaps a hangover from her husband's time in office. Among leaned Democrats, 74 percent view Clinton favorably, 40 percent "strongly" so. But among leaned Republicans, 82 percent rate her unfavorably -- 66 percent strongly.
At the same time, Clinton leads in expectations as well as outright support -- 46 percent of Democrats expect her to win the nomination -- and in most attributes as well. She leads Obama and John Edwards by sizable margins (in many cases vast ones) on having the best experience, being the strongest leader, being the most electable and being the closest to Democrats on the issues.
But it's a closer contest on best understanding Democrats' problems -- an eight-point Clinton lead over Obama -- and she flags on honesty and trustworthiness, trailing Obama by a scant five points; and on being the "most inspiring" candidate, trailing him by eight.
Democrats split on whether Clinton's vote authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq was the right thing for her to have done (52 percent) or a mistake (47 percent). Among those who say it's a mistake, three in 10 say she should apologize for it -- far from a majority, but at 14 percent of all leaned Democrats, not an insignificant group if the primary race tightens.
Obama, for his part, has had an eight-point boost in personal favorability; 53 percent of Americans now rate him favorably, 30 percent unfavorably -- a better ratio than Clinton's, but with more people undecided, given his much shorter time in the public eye.
Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, has had a 13-point jump in his unfavorable rating. On the Republican side Mitt Romney, similarly, has seen a 10-point jump in his unfavorable score.
REPS -- In terms of overall popularity, Giuliani has the brightest halo by far: Sixty-four percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of him overall vs. just 28 percent unfavorable. Polarization is far milder: Giuliani's negative rating from leaned Democrats (41 percent) is just half Clinton's from leaned Republicans (82 percent).
In another contrast, while being "the most inspiring" candidate is a weaker attribute for Clinton, it's Giuliani's single best. And having the best experience, Clinton's best issue, is Giuliani's worst -- the only one on which he trails McCain.
Of course there are other attributes to consider; separate results from this poll show a substantial risk to McCain from voter compunctions about his age (he turns 72 next year); as well as challenges for Romney over his Mormon religion; Giuliani over his two divorces; and Obama, who's trying to quit smoking. (See separate analysis at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=2906639&page=1.)
Among support groups, Giuliani's backing for the nomination is higher among women than among men -- 50 percent vs. 39 percent. Clinton, as well, continues to do better with women than with men in her party, though she -- like Giuliani -- leads among both groups.
There may be more fluidity in the Republican race. A minority of Giuliani's supporters, 38 percent, support him strongly, as do 31 percent of McCain's; that soft support may provide less of a shock absorber on the campaign trail. Clinton's support among Democrats, by contrast, is 56 percent strong; Obama's, 60 percent.
METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone, Feb. 22-25, 2007, among a random national sample of 1,082 adults, including an oversample of black respondents. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.
ABC News polls can be found on ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollvault.html.