Poll: Suspense builds among GOP rivals

A new statewide survey in New Hampshire shows a Democratic contest that has a clear front-runner and a Republican race that doesn't.

Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a 21-percentage point lead over Democratic rival Barack Obama.

But among Republicans, Mitt Romney has an edge that seems increasingly precarious, while Arizona Sen. John McCain has rebounded to a strong third. Romney was backed by 26% of likely primary voters in the Marist Poll, followed by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani at 20% and McCain at 17%. Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson had 10%.

McCain's support was the most firmly committed of the GOP rivals while Romney's was the softest. More than half of McCain's backers said they strongly supported him, compared with just over a third of Romney's supporters.

Among Democrats, Clinton was at 41%, Obama at 20% and former North Carolina senator John Edwards at 11%.

The poll of 1,512 New Hampshire voters was taken by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion from Oct. 4-9. The Granite State's contest is considered critical because it holds the opening primary of the campaign and typically winnows the field for the states that follow.

Even so, its date hasn't been set yet amid jockeying by states to move forward in the political calendar. While Jan. 8 is an option, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner hasn't ruled out holding the balloting as early as mid-December.

The Republican race seems particularly fluid. Romney, a familiar figure as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, has seen his lead erode from a high of 33% in a New Hampshire survey in July. McCain's standing fell as low as 10% in midsummer after he spent nearly all of his campaigns funds and shook up his staff.

"The good news in this for McCain is that he's definitely in the thick of things, despite having had a weak six months," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll. "The bad news is that he does better among independents than Republicans." Independent support helped McCain win the primary in 2000 over George W. Bush, but most of the states that follow don't allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries.

McCain said on CBS' Face the Nation that his campaign was "getting traction" but "we've got a long way to go. It's a long, hard pull."

On the Democratic side, Clinton holds a daunting lead over Obama. As recently as July, the two were tied in a New Hampshire poll. "Her support is as firmly committed to her as anybody else's, including Obama," Miringoff said. "It's not soft name recognition. It's real."

In New Hampshire, as elsewhere, her support is anchored by women. Among likely Democratic primary voters, the New York senator is backed by nearly half of the women but only a third of the men. She and Obama were almost even among male voters.

Clinton has scheduled a fundraiser, policy announcement and campaign events this week to spotlight her strength among women.

The Marist Poll's margin of error among likely Democratic voters was +/—5 points. Among likely Republican voters it was +/—5.5 points.

In a new survey in Nevada, which holds one of the first set of caucuses in January, Clinton led with 39%, followed by Obama at 21% and Edwards at 9%. Among Republicans, Giuliani led with 28%, followed by Thompson at 23%, Romney at 17% and McCain at 9%.

The Mason-Dixon poll of 600 voters, taken Tuesday through Thursday, had a margin of error of +/—6 points.

Meanwhile, Edwards was endorsed Sunday by the Friends of the Earth Action, the political arm of Friends of the Earth. Brent Blackwelder, president of the environmental group that claims more than 100,000 U.S. members, said it was impressed by Edwards' proposal to reduce carbon emissions and his opposition to more nuclear power plants.