WASHINGTON – White men, conservatives, evangelicals and other pivotal blocs are divided among the Republican Party's leading contenders for president, leaving the race for the 2008 GOP nomination highly fluid, according to the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll.
The poll showed the contest remains a virtual tie between Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, at 24 percent and Fred Thompson, the actor and former senator from Tennessee, at 19 percent. Not far behind at 15 percent is Sen. John McCain of Arizona while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has 7 percent.
"Overall, the survey underscores that no contender has yet to convincingly make the case that he is the candidate for change that so many voters want as the party searches for its identity and a successor to Bush," AP reported.
In contrast, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has a clear, across-the-board lead in the Democratic race over Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois by 34 percent to 20 percent, roughly the margin she has enjoyed for months. Lagging behind was former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina at 10 percent, while another 12 percent had no preference.
Further highlighting how up for grabs the GOP race is, AP reported that fully 22 percent of Republicans did not back a candidate. And when the handful of GOP voters backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who has not said he is running, are distributed to their second choices, they divide about evenly among Giuliani, Thompson and McCain.
"I like Rudy's stand on the war on terror, and I also like his leadership qualities and I don't just mean 9/11," said August Olivier, 61, a conservative Giuliani backer and retired automobile executive from Rochester, Mich. But he told AP he also liked Thompson and might change his mind, adding: "I'm not against him. We've got time."
Lisa Baudoin, 40, a student and homemaker in Sugar Land, Texas, said she is a conservative and supporting Thompson because of his views on abortion and immigration. She said she does not like Giuliani's more moderate immigration stance or his three marriages, and doesn't like McCain's opposition to the U.S. torturing terrorism suspects.
"How are you going to get information? They don't play nice. Why do we have to if no one else is," she said, according to AP.
While a number of evangelicals were rooting for Thompson to join the White House race, after he finally announced his candidacy on Sept. 4, many have pulled back to more carefully scrutinize the man they might rally behind and call their commander-in-chief.
"A month or two ago, I sensed there was some urgency for people to make a move and find a candidate," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, according to The Associated Press. "Right now, I think people are stepping back a little and watching. The field is still very fluid."
Thompson, a former Tennessee senator and an actor on the hit TV drama "Law & Order," has portrayed himself as a conservative candidate opposed to abortion and gay "marriage" – two key political concerns of evangelical conservatives.
However, under closer scrutiny, Thompson has been seen by some Christian leaders as not firm enough in defending core issues of the Christian right.
In August, the former senator told CNN that he supports an amendment that would prohibit states from imposing their gay "marriage" laws on other states. While Thompson's position is a conservative one, it is much more lenient than what evangelical leaders want – an amendment banning same-sex "marriage" nationwide.
"The problem I'm having is that I don't see any blood trail," said Rick Scarborough, a Southern Baptist preacher and president of Vision America, according to The Associated Press. "When you really take a stand on issues dear to the heart of social conservatives, you're going to shed some blood in the process. And so far, Fred Thompson's political career has been wrinkle-free."
Evangelicals, however, are forced to take into consideration the current lack of GOP presidential options.
Front-runner Giuliani is seen as too liberal with his support for abortion and gay rights. Meanwhile, Sen. McCain has made a couple strong criticisms against evangelical leaders, while former Gov. Romney has also been criticized for flip-flopping on the abortion issue and for his ties to the Mormon church – which many evangelicals consider a cult.
As evangelical leaders acknowledge the need for more assessment of potential favorite Thompson, they have also pointed out that the ultimate goal is to win the White House seat.
"This is a dilemma a lot of people have," said Tim Wildmon, president of American Family Association. "They want to support the candidate that most reflects their values. But at the same time, you have to balance that against finding someone who can actually win."
According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Tuesday, Thompson is in a statistical dead heat with Giuliani, garnering 27 percent nationally among registered Republicans, while the former New York mayor is one point ahead at 28 percent.
Other polls, including the latest AP Ipsos poll, however, indicate that Giuliani continues to hold a lead over Thompson. A CBS/New York Times poll released Monday showed Giuliani with a 5 point lead over Thompson, 27 percent to 22 percent. Meanwhile, a USAToday/Gallup poll out Monday had Giuliani with a 12 point lead, 34 percent to 22 percent.
"Thompson has the edge among evangelical Republicans and especially among his fellow southerners; that's where Thompson has made the biggest gains," commented CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.
"The main reason Giuliani does better than Thompson [in head-to-head matchups] is that he's better known. Forty-seven percent of the public say they have never heard of Fred Thompson or have an opinion of him. Only 14 percent have no opinion of Rudy Giuliani," he added, according to CNN.
The latest survey, in which 358 Republicans were interviewed, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. For the 482 Democrats surveyed, the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Christian Post reporter Michelle Vu contributed to this report.