WASHINGTON — Powered by overwhelming support from evangelical Christians, Mike Huckabee has surged to a 12 percentage point lead over Mitt Romney among Republicans in Iowa, the nation's first voting state, according to a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll.
Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who was struggling for recognition just weeks ago, is now the choice of 32 percent of likely GOP voters in the Jan. 3 caucus. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who's been leading most Iowa polls all year, is now a distant second in Iowa with 20 percent. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is third at 11 percent.
Huckabee's strength rose most from self-described "born-again" Christians, who are expected to deliver about 40 percent of the state's Republican vote. They preferred Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, by 42-to-8 percent over Romney. But there were signs that his appeal is broader, as Huckabee trailed Romney by only three percentage points among Iowa Republicans who said they weren't born again.
History suggests that the winner of the Iowa caucus often roars into primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina with a blast of momentum that can all but ensure the party's nomination. Huckabee's lead exceeds the poll's error margin of plus or minus five percentage points. That would seem to crown him as the undisputed GOP frontrunner in Iowa less than four weeks before voters caucus there.
But Huckabee could be peaking too soon — his sudden lead is likely to mean that his rivals will target him for attack in ads, debates and speeches, and some 19 percent of GOP voters in Iowa remain undecided. The news media, too, are likely to intensify their scrutiny. The harsher reality for Huckabee could be visible on Wednesday, when the candidates debate in Des Moines.
Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, which conducted the survey, thinks that Huckabee could turn off many conservatives because his stand on immigration isn't as hard-line as others and because he raised taxes in Arkansas.
In the other early voting states, Huckabee is still introducing himself to voters. In the McClatchy-MSNBC survey of New Hampshire, which votes on Jan. 8, he was a distant fourth. Romney was first there with 25 percent, followed by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani with 17 percent, Arizona Sen. John McCain at 16 percent and Huckabee with 11 percent. Some 17 percent were undecided.
Huckabee, however, also scored a 3-point lead over Romney, 20-17 percent, in South Carolina, which votes Jan. 19, in a third McClatchy-MSNBC survey.
In Nevada, where voters of both parties will hold caucuses on Jan. 19, Giuliani led Romney 25-20 percent with Huckabee at 17 percent and all others in single digits. This survey, also by Mason-Dixon, was sponsored by the Las Vegas Review Journal, taken Dec. 3-5 and had an error margin of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
Add it all up and Huckabee's the man of the hour among GOP candidates, but his surge is suspect.
"His Iowa numbers are impressive. But look at New Hampshire, where you don't have that evangelical Christian base," said Coker.
Romney's slippage in Iowa was at least as significant because he's losing support from the voters he's courted most — social conservatives who closely examine candidates' views on "values issues." He tried to win them back on Thursday with a heavily publicized speech in Texas on his Mormon faith, but it appeared to make little difference to evangelical voters.
Huckabee, too, emphasizes conservative social values; last week he announced the formation of an Iowa Pastors Coalition consisting of dozens of clergymen.
"I'm a Christian," said Trent Rinderknecht, a high-school student from Van Horne, Iowa, "and I hope Huckabee will make Christian decisions."
While Romney retains his New Hampshire lead, the McClatchy-MSNBC poll suggests that it's shrinking fast compared to earlier surveys, in which his average lead in late November was almost 16 points, according to RealClearPolitics.com. Romney's well known to the state's voters since he governed the state next door from 2003 until January and has a home in New Hampshire.
Even if he wins there, Romney will confront the evangelical tide again 11 days later in South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary, where 63 percent consider themselves born-again Christians.
Huckabee leads in South Carolina with 20 percent, followed by Giuliani at 17 percent, Romney at 15 percent and Thompson at 14 percent. Eighteen percent were undecided. Voters who identified themselves as born-again preferred Huckabee to Romney by 24 to 16 percent, with 13 percent for Giuliani and 14 percent for Thompson.
Voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina last week said they'd be watching Iowa closely as they make up their minds.
James Myles, a Newbury, N.H. retiree, leans toward Romney but is troubled by how "he's like a palm tree that shifts in the breeze" because he's changed many of his more liberal views since he was governor. Myles remains undecided.
In South Carolina, Suzanne Stewart, the owner of a machinery moving and rigging business in Greer, listed herself as currently preferring Romney, but, she said, "It seems like a lot of things are unfolding."
COMPLETE POLL RESULTS
Download the surveys in PDF format:
HOW WE POLL
The McClatchy-MSNBC Poll is a snapshot of voter opinion at the time it was conducted. It isn't a prediction of how people will vote on Election Day.
The Mason-Dixon poll of 400 likely caucus attendees or primary voters in each state was conducted by telephone from Dec. 3-6. Those interviewed were selected by a random variation of telephone numbers from a cross section of telephone exchanges. That means that anyone in the state with a phone line had the same odds of being called as anyone else, except for people who use cell phones only. Cell phone numbers are not in the exchanges.
The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points. That means that 95 percent of the time, the correct numbers could be as many as 5 percentage points above the polls percentage point findings, or as many as 5 percentage points below them. The remaining 5 percent of the time, the correct numbers could vary even more.
The sampling margin of error doesn't include other variables that could affect results, including the way questions are worded or the order in which they're asked.