POLL: Transformed by Iowa and N.H., '08 Kicks Off as a Free-for-All

Iowa and New Hampshire have transformed the 2008 presidential race into a free-for-all, vaulting John McCain past longtime frontrunner Rudy Giuliani in the Republican contest and fueling a strong challenge to Hillary Clinton by Barack Obama among Democrats.

McCain's victory in New Hampshire has sharply boosted views of his qualifications and abilities alike: His rating within his party as its most electable contender has tripled; as strongest leader, it's doubled; and he's scored double-digit gains in trust to handle Iraq and terrorism. He's climbed into the lead in overall vote preference for the first time in ABC News/Washington Post polls in the 2008 campaign.

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Obama likewise is reaping benefits from winning the Iowa caucuses and coming within two points of Clinton in New Hampshire. He now challenges her as the most electable candidate. He's severely eroded her reputation as its strongest leader and sharply improved his trust to handle key issues. And in overall preference Clinton and Obama now are all but tied, 42-37 percent among likely voters, a dramatic tightening.

An important question is how well both McCain and Obama's newfound popularity translates in the state-by-state slog of primaries. McCain's gained more ground among independents and moderates than among the conservatives and mainline Republicans at the party's core -- the bridge he failed to cross in 2000. And his age is a potential problem; three in 10 Americans say it dampens their enthusiasm for him.

Like McCain, Obama's gains have come more among independents than among his party's regulars, and he remains notably vulnerable on experience. But he's also soared in a key Democratic group -- African-Americans, who've switched from favoring Clinton by 52-39 percent a month ago to an even larger preference for Obama, 60-32 percent, today.

While Obama also has drawn much closer among whites, preferences of blacks are highly significant in some upcoming races; in the past blacks have accounted for 47 percent of Democratic voters in South Carolina (Jan. 26) and Georgia (Feb. 5), 46 percent in Louisiana (Feb. 9) and more than a third in Virginia and Maryland (Feb. 12).

VOTE PREFERENCE -- The changes in overall preferences in both races are remarkable. Among Democratic likely voters, Obama's gained 14 points and Clinton's lost 11 since the last ABC/Post poll, completed Dec. 9. John Edwards is flat, at 11 percent support.

Given sample sizes, Clinton's 5-point advantage over Obama is not statistically significant at the customary 95 percent confidence level; it's 75 percent likely to be a real lead. She still leads among women, but now by 11 points, vs. a vast 39 points last month. And Obama now leads nationally among men, 9 points ahead of Clinton.

In the Republican contest, McCain does have a significant lead, with 28 percent support among likely Republican primary voters, more than double his 12 percent a month ago. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are little changed, at 20 percent and 19 percent respectively. But Giuliani's lost 10 points, dropping to 15 percent support, and Thompson's down to 8 percent -- for both, their lowest of the campaign so far.

FAVORABLES -- Some of these changes extend beyond the candidates' own parties. Among all Americans, McCain's personal favorability rating -- the most basic measure of a public figure's popularity -- has jumped by 16 points since fall. Obama, similarly, has gained 12 points among all Americans in personal favorability.

Favorable ratings for Clinton and Edwards both also have advanced, each up 8 points; and the biggest bolt, 21 points, is for Huckabee, who was catapulted onto the national scene with his victory in the Iowa caucuses. Still, though, nearly as many Americans see Huckabee unfavorably (38 percent) as favorably (42 percent).

Giuliani, Romney and Thompson are struggling in terms of their basic popularity. Giuliani for the first time has slipped under 50 percent favorability among all adults, down steeply from a high of 67 percent just over a year ago; at a 46-46 split, as many now view him unfavorably as favorably.

It's worse yet for Romney, viewed more unfavorably than favorably by a 12-point margin; and Thompson, negative by 15 points. Indeed, even in his own party, Romney has comparatively weak 55 percent favorability; Thompson, just 47 percent.

While the three main Democratic contenders and McCain are the only figures with majority popularity, McCain has a cross-party advantage: He's viewed favorably by 50 percent of leaned Democrats. Among leaned Republicans, just 23 percent see Clinton favorably; Obama and Edwards do better in the GOP camp, around 40 percent favorable.

ATTRIBUTES -- The pros and cons of the candidates' personal attributes add to the picture, in a way that raises a potential challenge for McCain: his age.

The notion of Obama as the first African-American or Clinton as being the first woman president both are rated as modest net positives by Americans overall. The notion of Huckabee being the first Baptist minister to serve as president is a modest net negative. (There's been a previous minister, James Garfield in 1881, not a Baptist.) Much bigger negatives are being a Mormon (Romney), and first taking office at age 72, as would be the case with McCain.

This poll measured these by asking respondents if each attribute made them more or less enthusiastic about that person's candidacy. In each case most said it wouldn't make a difference; politics nonetheless is a game of margins.

Obama as first black president gets a net 40-point positive rating among blacks, vs. just +4 among whites; Clinton as first woman, +19 among women vs. a wash among men. Among evangelical white Protestants, Romney's religion is a 39-point negative while Huckabee's being a minister is a 22-point positive; among their non-evangelical counterparts, it's Romney -15, Huckabee -8. McCain's age has a 26-point negative impact among seniors, about the same as among other ages.

Looking at these within parties, Obama's race is a net positive solely among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, +22 points, while essentially neutral (-2) among leaned Republicans. There's also a big gap on Clinton as the first woman president (positive for Democrats, negative for Republicans) and to some extent, in the opposite direction, on Huckabee. But Romney's religion and McCain's age cross party lines as net negatives.

Negatives aren't fatal in and of themselves, but rather concerns the candidates need to address -- as Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy successfully addressed their age and religion, respectively. But addressing them does matter: Currently, among leaned Republicans who are less enthusiastic about McCain because of his age, Giuliani leads him in vote preference by 14 points, 27-13 percent.

THE ECONOMY -- The election is unfolding against the backdrop of an ominous cloud: The economy. It has gained again as the issue of greatest concern to Americans in this contest, now clearly outstripping the Iraq war for the first time.

Twenty-nine percent now call the economy the most important issue in their vote, nearly triple what it was just last September; 20 percent say the war in Iraq, down 15 points in that time. Ten percent cite health care, about steady, with other answers in single digits.

There are differences in issue concerns within the two parties, but, again a first, the economy now outstrips other issues among Democrats and Republicans alike.

These could play out in vote preferences. On the Democratic side, Clinton leads Obama by 46-33 percent as the candidate who's best trusted to handle the economy, but that's contracted sharply from a 58-18 percent Clinton lead last month -- a 12-point loss for Clinton and a 15-point gain for Obama. On the Republican side things are even more unsettled around this issue: A four-way tie among McCain, Huckabee, Romney and Giuliani in trust to handle the economy, with Giuliani relinquishing the advantage.

MORE ISSUES -- Other issues underscore the impressive shifts in both races. Obama now challenges Clinton in trust to handle the Iraq war; it's 40-36 percent, compared with a 2-1 Clinton advantage, 51-26 percent, a month ago. And it's Clinton +9 in trust to handle terrorism, down from her 27-point advantage last month.

In one of her best issues, health care, Clinton leads Obama by a still-wide 54-27 percent, but that's also better for Obama than it's been.

In the Republican race, McCain's surge in trust to handle two issues, Iraq and terrorism -- the latter Giuliani's hallmark -- also is remarkable. A month ago Giuliani led McCain in trust to handle terrorism by 36-26 percent; today that's switched to McCain by 40-24 percent. On Iraq, the two were even; now it's McCain by 42-19 percent.

DEM GROUPS -- As noted, Obama's made a big move among African-Americans since December -- up 21 points -- and now leads Clinton by 60-32 percent in this group, his biggest lead among blacks of the campaign and his largest margin in any group in this poll. He's also up by 21 points among independents, leading Clinton by 44 to 31 percent; she leads by 8 points among mainline Democrats.

The mantra of change continues to resonate with Democrats; 54 percent are looking for "a new direction and new ideas" over "strength and experience," and Obama beats Clinton among "new direction" voters by 53-27 percent, his second-largest margin in any group. Clinton answers by leading Obama by 59-21 percent among "strength and experience" voters.

Obama did particularly well with younger voters in Iowa and New Hampshire; nationally, he's improved by 26 points among leaned Democrats under age 40, leading Clinton by 52 to 35 percent in this group. Clinton pushes back strongly among seniors, her best group, leading Obama by 59 percent to 20 percent.

Obama leads among men by about as many points as Clinton leads among women. But Obama has made a big move among unmarried women, now running evenly with Clinton in this group, 43-40 percent -- a 25-point gain for Obama. That mainly reflects the change among blacks; a quarter of unmarried women are African-Americans.

Clinton continues to hold a large lead among married women, 53 to 30 percent, but Obama's moved closer here too. And he's chipped away at another of Clinton's best groups, those with lower levels of education, up 19 points since last month.

REP GROUPS -- On the Republican side, McCain's support peaks among moderates, at 40 percent, vs. 22 percent for Giuliani; McCain's gained 26 points among moderates since December while Giuliani's lost 15 points. Conservatives -- who predominate in most GOP primaries -- split more narrowly, 25 percent for McCain, 23 percent for Huckabee and 17 percent for Romney, with 16 percent for Giuliani.

Similarly, McCain has 36 percent support among independents -- up 19 points since December -- with Huckabee at 27 percent. McCain's gains among independents have come at the expense of Romney and Giuliani, both down 10 points in this group, to 8 and 11 percent, respectively.

McCain has also gained ground among mainline Republicans, with 25 percent support, up 12 points since December, now running slightly ahead of Giuliani at 19 percent. Giuliani has lost 10 points among Republicans since December.

Perhaps surprisingly, McCain is running competitively among evangelical white Protestants, a core Republican group, with 25 percent support to Huckabee's 31 percent; that's a 13-point gain for McCain since December, while Huckabee's been essentially flat. Romney gets just 8 percent support from evangelicals, Giuliani, 15 percent.

In another of Giuliani's weaker groups, he's supported by just 12 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners who oppose legal abortion -- and they account for 53 percent of the party.

Among leaned Republicans who prefer strength and experience over new ideas and a new direction, three in 10 support McCain (up 14 points since December), 12 points more than his nearest competitor, Huckabee. Among those who prefer new ideas, McCain and Huckabee run evenly.

NOT BUSH -- In the end there's one thing majorities on both sides agree on, and that's a change from George W. Bush's leadership. Seventy-nine percent of Americans say the next president should set the nation on a new course rather than following the direction in which Bush has been leading. (And two-thirds feel that way strongly.)

For the first time this is even more than said so about Bush's father, 75 percent, the summer before he was voted out of office in 1992. And it's vastly more than the most who ever wanted a new direction after Reagan (58 percent) or Bill Clinton (48 percent).

It holds in both parties, albeit to different degrees. Ninety-four percent of leaned Democrats, and 57 percent of leaned Republicans, say they want the next president to take a different direction than Bush's. Claims to the mantle of "change" are likely to continue apace for the next 10 months.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 9-12, 2008, among a random national sample of 1,130 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans for a total of 202 black respondents (weighted back to their correct share of the national population). The results have a 3-point error margin for the full sample, 4 points for the 612 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 5 points for the 389 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 5 points for the 423 likely Democratic primary voters and 6 points for the 280 likely Republican primary voters. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF with charts and full questionnaire.

Click here for more ABC News polls.