Thompson won praise for his conservative positions on social issues and what these voters perceived as his more approachable personality.
The thrust of the "focus group" discussion mirrored the findings of a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll last month. That survey found Giuliani and Thompson are the most popular candidates among GOP voters nationwide, but most said they could still end up supporting someone else.
Pollster Hart, summarizing the tone of the focus group, said, "They're dying to find somebody, and nobody has emerged.
He added: "You have two different races: the professional race and the personal race. The professional race is won almost overwhelmingly by Rudy Giuliani, but when it comes to personal qualities, they strongly prefer Fred Thompson."
Several women in the group, asked to describe Giuliani, chose unflattering adjectives. "Cold," said Wade. "Cocky," said Beninghove.
Thompson, on the other hand, is "more like Reagan," said George Kraynak, 65, a retired maintenance supervisor.
Terry Austin, 49, a Virginia state trooper, said Thompson "reminds me of a time gone by that we'd like to have back. He's got that air of a good ol' country boy that's got the whole country in his mind."
Asked which candidate they would want to organize their neighborhood's response to a disaster, nine named Giuliani. Asked which candidate they would most want to spend a weekend with, 10 said Thompson.
Romney, who is hoping that wins in Iowa and New Hampshire will vault him to the nomination, presented a problem to many of these voters: They don't know much about him, but they do know he's a Mormon and that, Armstrong said, "makes me nervous."
Five of the 12 voters said Romney's faith made them unlikely to vote for him.
"I really hate to hold someone's religion against them," said Matt. "But part of being a strong leader is having Christian values in the mainstream."
He added: "I'm not unmovable. If [Romney] did bring [his religion] into the open and assured the American people, 'I'm going to govern in a broad and open way,' the way [John F.] Kennedy, who was our first Catholic president, did . . . I think that might sway me."
Romney has mused about making such a speech, and most analysts expect him to do so at some point.
As for McCain, these voters expressed respect for his heroism as a prisoner of war in Vietnam but showed little inclination to vote for him.
The presidency "is a high-stress job, and I think age would be a factor," Austin said. McCain, 71, would be the oldest person elected president.
The leading Democratic candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, won grudging respect as a formidable figure -- but, not surprisingly, no support from these conservatives.
"She's extremely competent," said Matt. "I just don't happen to agree with her."
"I'd vote for Mickey Mouse before I'd vote for Hillary Clinton," growled Armstrong.