Mike Huckabee has leaped ahead of Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney in Iowa, seizing first place in a new Des Moines Register poll of likely Republican caucus participants.
Huckabee wins the support of 29 percent of Iowans who say they definitely or probably will attend the Republican Party's caucuses on Jan. 3. That's a gain of 17 percentage points since the last Iowa Poll was taken in early October, when Huckabee trailed both Romney and Fred Thompson.
Other poll findings indicate that the former Arkansas governor is making the most of a low-budget campaign by tapping into the support of Iowa's social conservatives.
Romney, who has invested more time and money campaigning in the state than any other GOP candidate, remains in the thick of the Iowa race with the backing of 24 percent of likely caucusgoers. But that's a drop of 5 points since October for the former Massachusetts governor.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the frontrunner in national polls, holds third place in Iowa at 13 percent, despite waging a limited campaign in the state.
Thompson, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee who waited until September to formally enter the race for the Republican nomination, has slipped to fourth place in the Iowa Poll, at 9 percent.
U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are tied for fifth place at 7 percent each. Four other candidates trail them. The new Iowa Poll, conducted over four days last week, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
The complexion of the race could easily change in the last month of intense campaigning ahead of the caucuses, which lead off the presidential nominating process. Roughly six in 10 likely Republican caucus participants say they could still be persuaded to support another candidate. Poll participant Thelma Whittaker, a retired teacher from Columbus Junction, is leaning toward supporting Huckabee in the caucuses but also could back Romney.
"I'm a very conservative Republican and I feel that (Huckabee) follows through with those ideas," said Whittaker, who is troubled by the country's moral decline. On the other hand, she wonders if Huckabee is a strong enough candidate to win the White House for the GOP.
When it comes to Romney, "I go along with a lot of his ideas,'" Whittaker said, "but he's also done some flip-flopping that scares me on issues like abortion and taxes."
Huckabee has come a long way since last May, when he languished in a tie for sixth place in the Register's poll, garnering the support of just 4 percent of likely caucus participants then.
His campaign picked up steam after he notched a surprising second-place finish in the Iowa Republican Party's straw poll in August.
The Register's new scientific poll shows Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, leading Romney 38 percent to 22 percent among those who consider themselves born-again Christians. In October, Romney edged Huckabee 23 percent to 18 percent among people in that group, which accounts for one-half of all likely caucus participants.
Similarly, Huckabee holds a 2-to-1 lead over Romney among those who say it is more important for a presidential candidate to be socially conservative than fiscally conservative.
Here are some other key comparisons for the two leading candidates in the poll:
- Huckabee leads Romney among men, 28 percent to 20 percent. They run neck-and-neck among women.