WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain, once considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has fallen to third place in a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, and is running behind Fred Thompson, an actor and former senator who has not even entered the race.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani leads the crowded field of announced and potential contenders with support from 29% of probable Republican primary voters surveyed, followed by Thompson with 15% and McCain with 12%. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and a fundraising powerhouse, had 8%.
The Arizona senator's showing in the poll is his lowest in any national survey to date, marking a new benchmark in his flagging fortunes. The surge of interest in Thompson is a sign of conservative dissatisfaction with the established field of candidates and underscores just how unsettled the Republican race remains.
"Thompson is a Reagan conservative, and that's what I want," said Robert Little, a poll respondent in Duluth, Ga., who views other leading Republican candidates as unreliable allies on social issues.
Among probable Democratic primary voters, the campaign continues to solidify into a three-way race, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York leading Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina by comfortable margins.
But the poll signals larger obstacles for Clinton in matchups against top Republicans: Even though voters overall said, by a 10-point margin, that they would prefer to see a Democrat win in 2008, the poll shows Clinton eking out only a narrow lead over McCain, and running behind Giuliani.
Contrasting contests Overall, the poll paints contrasting portraits of the two parties' presidential contests at this early stage in the campaign.
Democrats have a well-settled field that is beginning to divide voters along class and income lines: Clinton is running strongest among lower-income voters, and Obama is besting her among higher-earning Democratic voters. Clinton is the favorite among black voters, even though Obama is himself African American.
The Republican candidate field, by contrast, is still in flux and ill-defined.
"Republicans, unlike Democrats, are not totally satisfied with their choices," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "Giuliani is the clear leader, but there's a lot of competition for second place."
Ready for change The survey also shows significant Republican desire to move beyond the George W. Bush era: 61% of Republican voters surveyed said they wanted the next GOP nominee to campaign on a platform of moving in a new direction. Only 30% said the nominee should call for continuing Bush policies.
The poll, conducted last Thursday through Monday under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,373 adults, including 1,246 registered voters. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The sample included 557 probable Democratic primary voters, who were asked about potential Democratic candidates, and 437 probable Republican primary voters, who were asked about GOP hopefuls. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points for Democrats, and plus or minus 5 points for Republicans.
Trouble for McCain McCain's third-place ranking in the poll comes at a time when his campaign has been buffeted by trouble on many fronts. He raised less money in the first quarter of 2007 than did Giuliani or Romney. His vigorous support for the Iraq war has cost him support among independent voters who were crucial to his 2000 campaign. He drew heavy criticism last week for comments about the security situation in Baghdad that were widely seen as Pollyannaish.
When the survey reduced the field to three candidates, Giuliani's lead was more decisive: He drew 48% to McCain's 25% and Romney's 20%.
When the broader range of GOP candidates was assessed, Thompson did particularly well among Christian conservatives. He drew support from 21% of people who identified themselves with the religious right, followed by Giuliani with 17% and McCain with 10%. Thompson's showing may reflect suspicion among social conservatives of the other front-runners on key issues like abortion and gay rights.
"Giuliani, I definitely don't trust him as far as I can throw a bull elephant by his tail," said Little, the Georgia retiree. "John McCain, I don't like him."
It is unclear whether Thompson will enter the race for the Republican nomination. He revealed Wednesday that he had been diagnosed in 2004 with lymphoma, which his physician said was in remission after treatment.
Many of the actor's backers say that their second choice for president is Giuliani.
"He's also a person who was able to clean up and operate New York," said Patrick Ary, a radio announcer in Wichita, Kan., whose first choice for president is Thompson. "If you can succeed in New York City, you can do it almost everywhere."
Bad news for Edwards When Democrats were asked to assess their own broad field of potential candidates — including former Vice President Al Gore, who has not said he will run — Clinton drew support from 33% of respondents. Obama drew 23% and Edwards 14%. Gore, enjoying a burst of publicity surrounding a documentary on global warming that features him, was backed by 13%.
When the choice was limited to the top three candidates, support for Clinton jumped to 42%, whereas Obama drew 32% and Edwards 20%.
The demographic breakdown of supporters spells bad news for Edwards, the son of a textile worker and who represented North Carolina in the Senate. Although his Southern roots and his pitch to working-class voters would seem to make minorities a natural constituency for him, the poll found he drew limited support from blacks.
In a three-way contest, 50% of black respondents supported Clinton, whereas 41% supported Obama.
"I can't say that just because he's black, I'm going to vote for him," said Kay Harris, an African American retiree in Chicago who favors Clinton. "She has experience. She was around her husband at the time [he was president]. Being a smart woman, she picked up a lot of knowledge."
Ken Hoskins, another black voter, said he favored Obama — not because of his race but because of his challenge to the status quo in national political culture.
"I think today's climate calls for a fresh approach," said Hoskins, a real estate consultant in Virginia. Indeed, Obama's message of political reform seems to be most appealing to upscale voters like Hoskins.
Obama outpolled Clinton in higher-income groups. But Clinton won support from 52% of voters with household income under $40,000, compared with 26% for Obama and 16% for Edwards. Though Obama ran even with Clinton among college graduates, Clinton did better among less-educated voters.
Clinton also enjoys a big advantage among women. In a three-way race, 44% of women backed Clinton, compared with 29% for Obama and 21% for Edwards.
Edge for Democrats? When all voters were asked whether they would prefer a Republican or Democrat to be elected president in 2008, 49% favored Democrats, compared with 39% favoring the GOP.
But when they were asked to assess particular candidates, voters did not give such a decided edge to Democrats.
Many of the matchups were so close that the margins were statistically insignificant, including the choice between Clinton and McCain, in which the Democrat drew 45% and the Republican 42%. Giuliani was a more formidable opponent for Clinton, drawing 48% to her 42%. Of the Democratic candidates, only Obama outpolled Giuliani, 46% to 42%.
The poll also provides a window into the different concerns voters are bringing to the campaign. Almost two-thirds of Democratic voters said the war in Iraq was the most important issue for candidates to address, whereas only 37% of Republicans cited Iraq as the top priority.
Among GOP voters, 13% wanted the candidates to call for tougher immigration laws. By contrast, only 1% of Democrats gave priority to an illegal immigration crackdown.
Begin text of infobox
Respondents were asked whom they leaned toward when given two choices for president.
(Asked of probable voters)
Giuliani (R) 48%
Clinton (D) 42%
Clinton (D) 45%
McCain (R) 42%
Obama (D) 46%
McCain (R) 42%
Obama (D) 48%
McCain (R) 40%
Source: Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll
Clinton and Giuliani early favorites for 2008
Q: If the Democratic primary or caucus for president were being held in your state today and the candidates were Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Christoper J. Dodd (Conn.), former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.), Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Vice President Al Gore, for whom would you vote?
(Among probable Democratic primary voters)
Don't know 13
Q: If the Republican primary or caucus for president were being held in your state today and the candidates were Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.), Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (Wis.) and actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.), for whom would you vote?
(Among probable Republican primary voters)
F. Thompson 15%
T. Thompson 3%
Someone else/ Don't know 17%
Q: If the 2008 presidential election were held today and you had the following two choices, whom do you lean more toward:
Clinton (D) 44%
Romney (R) 37%
Obama (D) 50%
Romney (R) 31%
Giuliani (R) 45%
Edwards (D) 43%
Edwards (D) 44%
McCain (R) 40%
Edwards (D) 50%
Romney (R) 30%
*Less than 0.5%
Note: 2008 matchups do not add up to 100% because some answer categories are not shown.
The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll contacted 1,373 adults nationwide by telephone April 5- 9. Included are 1,246 registered voters, among them 557 Democratic primary voters and 437 Republican voters. The 2008 presidential election matchup questions were split among two random subgroups of 603 and 643 voters respectively. Telephone numbers were chosen randomly from a list of all exchanges in the nation, and random-digit dialing techniques allowed listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Areas with higher concentrations of African American households were disproportionately contacted in a separate random national sample to allow a more accurate analysis of that subgroup. Results in both samples were weighted slightly to conform with adults' respective census proportions by sex, ethnicity, age, education and national region. The margin of sampling error for all adults and all registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For Democratic primary voters it is plus or minus 4 points and for Republican voters it is plus or minus 5. For each of the split subgroups, the margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For certain other subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.
Source: Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll