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.
- Huckabee draws more support than Romney among caucusgoers between the ages of 35 and 54, while Romney does better among younger adults. They compete almost evenly among those 55 or older.
Older Iowans generally turn out in larger numbers for the caucuses than do younger adults.
- Both candidates are regarded favorably by more than three-fourths of likely caucus participants.
- Huckabee outscores Romney and the rest of the Republican field as the candidate seen as the most socially conservative, the most civil in tone and the most principled.
- Romney leads on six characteristics, including the most presidential of the GOP candidates, the most fiscally conservative and the best able to bring about real change.
Giuliani, the poll's third-place finisher, is seen as the most electable of the candidates and also has a slight edge as the most effective negotiator and the best able to bring Republicans and Democrats together.
On the other hand, Giuliani is seen by more likely caucus participants as the most ego-driven of the candidates.
Other poll findings show that Giuliani is more of a polarizing figure than the other top-tier candidates in Iowa:
- Thirty-four percent of likely caucusgoers see him as one of the worst choices for the Republican nomination. Paul ranks second in that category, at 26 percent.
- While 61 percent regard Giuliani favorably, 38 percent have unfavorable feelings toward him. Only Paul has a higher unfavorable mark in the poll, at 44 percent.
"He's too New York," Whittaker, the retired teacher, said of Giuliani. "He doesn't understand us. He doesn't care to understand us."
But poll participant Mark Pottorff, an agronomist from Sergeant Bluff, sides with those who have a high regard for Giuliani, citing his experience as a federal prosecutor and big-city mayor.
"He is tough on crime and during September 2001 he led New York City through some very tough and dark days," said Pottorff, 51. "I think he has the ability and the fortitude to stand up to dictators and terrorists."
Pottorff's second choice for the Republican presidential nomination is Romney, citing his experience in business and government and his commitment to his family.
Other poll findings show Thompson, the fourth-place finisher overall, tying with Huckabee as the candidate who is most like Ronald Reagan — the Republican president often cited by party leaders as their role model.
Paul, an opponent of the war in Iraq, has the dubious distinction as the GOP candidate who outpolls his rivals as the most negative contender.
But Paul, who has a loyal following and a well-funded campaign, has been creeping up in the Register's polls this year of likely caucus participants, matching McCain's level of support in the latest survey.