Rudolph W. Giuliani has been well ahead of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in nationwide polls, but he is far weaker in the crucial states that will cast early votes in the nominating process next year, according to a new Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll that underscores how unsettled the GOP race remains.
Among Republican voters, Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, trails Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he lags behind Fred Thompson in South Carolina.
However, Giuliani is only a few points behind the leader in New Hampshire and South Carolina -- within the poll’s margin of error -- suggesting that the race in those two states is too tight for anyone to be declared a clear front-runner.
In a worrisome finding for all the Republican candidates, the poll also found that many GOP voters in those key states are only lightly committed to their choices: Though they have been showered with attention by the campaigns, a sizable 72% of Iowa Republicans who say they favor a candidate also say they may decide to back someone else.
Among Democrats in those three states, the race is more firmly settled: The poll found that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has consolidated her lead on a sturdy foundation of support among women, blacks and, in some states, labor union households. And while Clinton previously had established leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, she now appears to be gaining momentum in Iowa, long considered friendly territory for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
The poll surveyed registered voters who planned to vote in the three early primaries or caucuses. Supervised by Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, it was conducted Sept. 6-10, just after Thompson officially joined the Republican race. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 5 percentage points; among Iowa Democrats it was 4 percentage points.
Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are three of the most important states that start the presidential voting season in January. Hotly contested races in both parties have prompted the candidates to focus most intently on those three states, believing victories there will provide momentum to win in the bigger states that follow.
Key findings about the Republican front-runners are:
* In Iowa, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, posts a solid lead, with support from 28% of GOP voters. Giuliani and Thompson trail with 16% each. Arizona Sen. John McCain’s faltering campaign drew 7% in the survey.
* In New Hampshire, Romney tops Giuliani 28% to 23%, a lead that is within the poll’s margin of error. McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, is backed by 12%. Thompson drew 11%, showing little bounce from his splashy national campaign announcement via late-night television and webcast.
* In South Carolina, where Thompson is hoping to trade on his Southern roots, the former Tennessee senator leads Giuliani 26% to 23%, within the poll’s margin of error. The result is a reversal from a Times/Bloomberg survey in June, when Giuliani outpolled Thompson.
Taken together, the results underscore that voters who have had the closest view of the Republican field see the race far differently than do voters nationwide.
Though Giuliani has built no clear lead in any early-voting state, he tops his closest competitor, Thompson, with a nearly 9-point margin in national polls, according to an analysis of multiple surveys by the website Pollster.com.
The Times/Bloomberg survey also reveals that Republicans remain dissatisfied with their field of candidates, even after Thompson’s long-awaited entry into the race. In South Carolina, 28% of Republicans are dissatisfied with the party’s candidates.
“This is a really scary election for a Republican,” John Haley, an Iowa butcher who participated in the poll, said in a follow-up interview. “I’m not feeling confident.”
The results from early-voting states will probably encourage Romney, who started out as one of the least-known of the Republican contenders and has invested heavily in campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. The bet seems to be paying off with strong showings in those two states.
The poll also provides a window into what voters in those states like about Romney.
Some 23% of Iowa Republicans rank Romney as the candidate most likely to be the strongest leader -- a remarkable challenge to Giuliani, chosen by 21%, because Giuliani has made leadership strength his calling card.
One-fifth of Iowa Republicans also choose Romney as the candidate who would be best on social issues, a larger share than any other candidate. That is striking, because Romney has had to labor to convince religious conservatives that he has abandoned his past support for abortion rights.
The South Carolina results indicate that, at least in that state, Thompson has made headway in his strategy of appealing to the party’s conservative wing: 31% of South Carolina’s religious-right voters support Thompson; Giuliani runs second with 20% of their votes.
But one member of the religious right backing Thompson, Thelma Clark of Lexington, S.C., acknowledges with a laugh that she may not like Thompson so much when she finds out more about him.
“I haven’t heard a lot about him yet,” said Clark, a retired accountant. “But I didn’t want any of them who were running already.”
Although the poll found that Giuliani’s national popularity has not translated into big leads in these key states, it did find many measures of his political strength.
He is seen by many Republicans -- even those who don’t back his candidacy -- as the most electable candidate. In South Carolina, 31% of Republicans say he is the candidate most likely to beat the Democratic nominee, even though only 23% name him as their first choice.
And Giuliani is identified in each of the three states as the candidate who would be best in fighting terrorism, the issue that is a top priority for Republican primary voters.
On the Democratic side, the poll results show that Clinton’s top rivals have so far not succeeded in their recent efforts to portray her as too much of an insider to foster change in the country.
To the contrary, voters in the three early states sometimes view her rivals as more likable and more likely to offer new ideas -- yet they seem to place greater emphasis on Clinton’s perceived experience and her ability to deal with Iraq and terrorism.
Clinton holds leads in all three states, despite factors in each that have been considered advantages for her opponents:
* In Iowa, where Edwards has been strong in the past, Clinton leads him by 5 percentage points, 28% to 23%, whereas Illinois Sen. Barack Obama wins support from 19% of voters.
* In New Hampshire, which has been considered favorable ground for Obama given his past appeal among upscale and well-educated white voters, Clinton’s lead is more stark. More primary voters there support her than Edwards and Obama combined.
* In South Carolina, where Obama’s campaign has hoped to rally support from the state’s large black population, Clinton continues to beat him among nearly every constituency, including blacks.
Edwards, meanwhile, who touts the fact that he was born in South Carolina and won that state’s primary as a candidate in 2004, wins only 7% among South Carolina Democrats -- suggesting that he, like Obama, is failing to gain traction against what is looking more and more like a Clinton juggernaut.
“On foreign affairs, I think Clinton’s stronger. On security, I think she’s stronger,” said Dana Cote, 64, a retired registered nurse who lives in Columbia, S.C.
Cote was among the 34% of South Carolina Democrats who named Obama as the candidate of “new ideas,” compared with 27% for Clinton. But like Cote, nearly one-third of the South Carolinians who praised Obama on that front said they would actually vote for Clinton, anyway.
Obama “hasn’t got enough experience,” he said. “You’ve got to be dirty to play politics. And he hasn’t gotten dirty enough.”
Across the board, Clinton is either winning every major voter category or is competitive with Obama among groups that have favored him in the past, even the upscale voters who helped fuel his rise in national polls.
Obama holds slight leads among college graduates in Iowa and South Carolina -- a proven strength for him in the past. But Clinton leads among those voters in New Hampshire. The survey suggests that Clinton has closed that gap by courting college-educated women, among whom she is either tied with Obama or ahead in the three states.
Even among South Carolina’s black voters, who are expected to make up about half of the Democratic primary electorate there, the prospect of electing the country’s first black president has not yet emerged as an advantage for the Illinois senator. Obama wins only about one-third of the black vote, compared with 43% for Clinton and 18% who don’t yet know.
That spells trouble for Obama, who clearly has not closed the deal with this core constituency.
“I don’t look at color or gender. I’m listening for who I believe will help us, the ordinary retired government worker who’s struggling here on a fixed income,” said poll respondent Nolie Bell, 70, of Irmo, S.C. She called Obama “an interesting person” but said she was planning to vote for Edwards.
“I think it’s about time that we get an African American president,” added Bell, who is black. “But when I listen to all of them, I’m still more impressed by Edwards.”
Diane McClave, a 76-year-old retiree who lives in the tiny northern New Hampshire town of Jackson, said she was amazed by Obama’s charisma when he recently held a town hall meeting in a nearby school gym. But she said she continued to lean toward Clinton.
“She is of the female persuasion,” McClave said. “And she seems understandable. Some politicians have a tendency to speak in tongues, I think, and I’m never too sure what they’re saying.”
Associate polling director Jill Darling contributed to this report.