Poll: Huckabee Soars Into GOP's Top Tier

DES MOINES, IA - DECEMBER 04: Republican U.S. Presidential hopeful Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee laughs during an open house for Iowa Campaign Headquarters on December 4, 2007, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise in the polls is not, it turns out, an Iowa-only phenomenon. According to a new CBS News/New York Times poll, the former Arkansas governor is running neck-and-neck with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the race for the support of GOP primary voters nationwide, and all the momentum is on Huckabee's side.

Huckabee was supported by 21 percent in the poll, up from a mere 4 percent in October, thanks largely to a swell in support from Christian conservatives. He trails Giuliani by only 1 percentage point - a statistically insignificant margin. While Huckabee's support has more than quintupled in the past two months, Giuliani has seen his fall by 7 percent.

While Huckabee's rise in Iowa - he now leads the field there, according to some polls - corresponds to increased support nationally, the same cannot be said of the Democratic race. Polls in the Hawkeye State have shown Barack Obama catching up to, and in some cases overtaking, party front-runner Hillary Clinton.

But the CBS News/New York Times poll of Democratic primary voters nationally found the race only somewhat closer than before, with Clinton leading Obama, 44 percent to 27 percent. That margin represents a slight narrowing since October, when Clinton held a 28-percent edge over Obama, but it also nearly mirrors the advantage she held in September.

The shifts in the presidential race come as Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the economy and the country's overall direction - not since the beginnings of the early-90s recession have so few Americans thought the economy was on an upward track. They also continue to strongly disapprove of both President Bush and the Democrat-led Congress, though, in a good sign for Democrats running in 2008, give the party an edge over the GOP on questions concerning Iraq and the economy.

One bit of good news for Republicans: Americans are somewhat more optimistic about the war in Iraq, with nearly 40 percent now saying the war is going well - only 22 percent said so in June.

The Republicans

While Giuliani and Huckabee led among GOP primary voters, Mitt Romney - seen as Huckabee's top rival for the support of Christian conservative voters - also saw his support increase slightly, from 12 percent in October to 16 percent now. Both John McCain and Fred Thompson have seen their support crumble. Thompson has seen the most dramatic drop, falling from 21 percent in October - good enough for second place - to 7 percent now, tying him with McCain for fourth place.

However, Republican primary voters, as a group, remain fluid, suggesting there is still room for movement in the GOP field. Only 23 percent said they had made up their mind in the race, while 76 percent said it was too early to settle on one candidate.

The rise in Huckabee's support, not surprisingly, comes from the strong gains he has made among the Republican Party's influential contingent of Christian conservatives. The ordained Baptist minister commands the support of 34 percent of white evangelicals, eclipsing his nearest rival, Giuliani, by 19 percent. He has also made impressive gains among those who identify as conservative or as weekly church-goers.

His gains come even as Republicans remain skeptical about his ability to win in the general election, indicating that "electability" is not a priority in the race for the nomination. Only 13 percent thought Huckabee was the most electable, compared to 43 percent who said so about Giuliani and 18 percent who said Romney would be the party's best candidate in November 2008.

Read The Complete CBS News/NY Times Poll On The Republican Race
The Democratic Race
The Nation: The Economy, Government Weakens While Iraq Improves
From Horserace: Behind The Numbers
What is helping Huckabee is his ability to make a good impression. Among those who had an opinion of him, those with a favorable view outweighed those with an unfavorable view by 3-to-1. While Huckabee has had some success in boosting his visibility, 60 percent still said they were undecided on Huckabee or didn't know enough about him to form an opinion, indicating he still has plenty of room for growth.

While Romney's support showed only modest gains in the poll compared to October, it appears he has been successful in persuading voters they could support a Mormon candidate for president - 52 percent of GOP primary voters said most people they knew would vote for a Mormon, up from 36 percent in June.

Interestingly, large numbers of GOP voters (45 percent) and all voters (55 percent) still don't know Romney is Mormon. This comes despite Romney's delivery of a well-publicized speech on faith and politics on Dec. 6, toward the beginning of the polling period.

The Democrats

The dramatic shifts seen in the Republican race were not reflected among Democrats. Clinton led the field with 44 percent support, trailed by Obama at 27 percent. John Edwards, who is also competitive in Iowa, was a distant third place nationally at 11 percent. All other candidates' support was in the single digits.

While these numbers show a slight decrease in Clinton's support and a modest uptick in Obama's, they indicate the race has only returned to where it was in the late summer.