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Iowa Surprise In Store for Republican Field?

Former Ark. governor Mike Huckabee could upset the Iowa field. (AP).

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa--The latest Iowa Poll, published Sunday in the Des Moines Register, has drawn attention largely because of what it shows about the Democratic race: Hillary Clinton is now leading in the state. What has drawn less attention, but is equally interesting, are the gyrations underway in the Republican race.

Mitt Romney, who has spent the most and campaigned the hardest in the state, has maintained the double-digit lead he established last spring. But the order of finish among the rest of the field has undergone a sizeable shakeup -- and even Romney should be nervous about what the poll reveals.

Back in May, when the Register last surveyed the state, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain were essentially tied for second in Iowa, with McCain at 18 percent and Giuliani at 17 percent. Today, second places goes to Fred Thompson, at 18 percent. Mike Huckabee is now third at 12 percent in a virtual tie with Giuliani, who has dropped to 11 percent.

McCain, who may be showing some signs of revival in New Hampshire, continues to languish in Iowa. He has fallen all the way to fifth in Iowa, at just 7 percent, which puts him only a few points ahead of Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul.

McCain's descent in Iowa is closely tied to his position on immigration, which was just beginning to hit his candidacy when the last Iowa Poll was conducted. In the survey released Sunday, 58 percent of likely Republican caucus attendees said his advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform was a major factor in their decision not to support him. More than half of Republican caucus-goers already say they have ruled out voting for him.

Giuliani's weakness is twofold. First is his support for abortion rights. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said his position on abortion was a major factor in their decision not to support him. But Giuliani also has stopped campaigning in Iowa -- or at least has not been here since early August.

His campaign has said he will compete energetically in the caucuses, but he shows little evidence of it right now -- and Iowans take those slights personally. At this point nearly half of those surveyed said they have ruled out supporting him.

Romney and Thompson are the apparent beneficiaries of the slippage by Giuliani and McCain. Thompson has made himself a force here by virtue of his generally conservative image and by showing up, even though he has played to mediocre reviews in the national press.

Whether he benefited by being in the state at the time the poll was taken isn't clear, although there were some signs that he is still far from making the sale with Iowa Republicans. That was clear from the responses to the question of which candidate voters saw as making the best president.

Neither Thompson nor Romney did as well on that question as their overall poll numbers would have suggested. While Romney led among the Republicans in terms of overall support, at 29 percent, just 20 percent said they thought he would make the best president. Half of Republicans surveyed said they are concerned about his flip-flops on abortion.

Thompson, who was at 18 percent on the ballot test, was cited by just 12 percent as making the best president. Also more than half said the fact that a candidate has had serious health problems would make them less likely to back them in the caucuses. Thompson revealed in the spring that he suffers from lymphoma, although he said it is in remission.

All that indicates that Republicans have some potential reservations about him that could affect his standing between now and January, when the caucuses will kick off the nomination battle. Working in his favor is that he appears more broadly acceptable to the GOP electorate in Iowa than any other candidate. Just 30 percent said they have ruled him out.

Huckabee, who lacks both the resources and the celebrity status of the big four candidates in the GOP field, now appears poised to embarrass several of them in January. He was virtually tied with Giuliani on the question of who would truly be the best president among the Republican candidates. His status as a former governor is appealing in the abstract to GOP voters.

His second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll has not given him the fundraising boost that he might have hoped, but he continues to perform well in debates with his rivals and his conservative positions and sunny disposition have begun to impress Iowans of both parties.

When I sat down on Friday evening with a group of Linn County Democratic Party officials and activists to talk about politics, the last thing I asked them was to give me their impressions of the Republican field. I wanted to know which candidate they thought might prove toughest in a general election race.

Surprisingly they named Huckabee. McCain, they said, was past his time. Romney's flip-flops, they suggested, would make him an easy target in a general election. They also said they found him too slick and plastic.

One said Giuliani would appeal to Democrats and worried about that. But others argued that Giuliani was too much identified with New York and the East Coast to play well in the Midwest, which once again is likely to be the critical battleground in 2008. Plus they thought he would split the Republican Party.

Huckabee drew only positive comments. One in the group said she has a friend in Arkansas who told her people there admire what he did for the state as governor. Another said he seemed like "a genuinely nice guy." Another described him as "grounded."

Huckabee remains the intriguing dark horse in the Republican race -- a candidate whose appeal in Iowa could further shake up a contest in which none of the candidates is yet able to take control.

--Dan Balz

Watch Dan Balz's conversation with campaign staffers on the ground in Iowa:

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By Washington Post editors  |  October 8, 2007; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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on the Road in Iowa

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