POLL: Shifting Preferences Shake GOP Race; Dem. Contest is Stable, Bush Stays Low

The interaction of religion and politics is helping to roil the Republican presidential race, with Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney gaining ground, while support for Rudy Giuliani, down especially among conservatives and highly engaged voters, has slipped to its lowest level of the year.

With a rally among evangelical Protestants, Huckabee's advanced sharply in this national ABC News/Washington Post poll, while Romney's made some progress allaying concerns about his Mormon religion. Along with Giuliani's diminished lead, his one-time chief competitors, John McCain and Fred Thompson, are near their own lows.

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The upheaval reshapes the possibilities in the Republican contest, reflecting an electorate whose core groups have been uneasy with Giuliani and McCain, and uninspired by Thompson. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, who say they're certain to vote, 25 percent in this poll support Giuliani, 19 percent Huckabee, 17 percent Romney, 14 percent Thompson and 12 percent McCain.

Huckabee's support has doubled from last month, while Giuliani's lost nine points. And while Giuliani retains a lead, it's nothing like his glory days early this year -- 53 percent in an ABC/Post poll last February, 30 points ahead of then-No. 2 McCain, with more modest double-digit leads subsequently.

Giuliani has dropped to 19 percent support among conservatives, a core Republican group uneasy with his backing of legal abortion and gay civil unions. He's down most sharply, by 20 points, among Republicans who are following the race very closely; they've shifted to Huckabee and Romney. And after two weeks on the defensive, Giuliani has lost considerable strength among his existing supporters: Just 28 percent of them now "strongly" favor him, down from 45 percent a month ago.

ISSUES: There's also a growing issue in the 2008 campaign, namely, the economy, which for the first time has surpassed the war in Iraq among the top two issues cited by likely voters. Among all Americans, 44 percent now say the economy's one of the top issues in their vote for president, up 15 points from last month; 37 percent name Iraq, down eight.

Just 28 percent, moreover, say the economy's in good shape, the lowest number since early 2003. Economic discontent can be a powerful political force, particularly if it finds a focus for blame.

DEMOCRATS: Unlike the Republican contest, this poll finds no upheaval in national preferences in the Democratic race, where, again among likely voters, Hillary Clinton leads Barack Obama by more than 2-1, 53-23 percent, with John Edwards at 10 percent, all essentially the same as last month.

This poll was conducted Thursday to Sunday, including interviews through the weekend when television personality Oprah Winfrey campaigned for Obama in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. It found no bump in support for Obama in Saturday and Sunday interviews; indeed, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are as likely to say Winfrey's endorsement makes them less likely to support Obama as more likely. Eighty-two percent say it makes no difference in their vote.

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