WASHINGTON — South Carolina appears poised to shake up the 2008 presidential race, with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Fred Thompson the frontrunners in a new state survey by Mason-Dixon.
With strong support from the African-American community, Illinois Sen. Obama has assumed a strong lead over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. On the Republican side, Thompson zoomed to the top spot, slightly ahead of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, even though Thompson hasn't yet announced his bid for the GOP nomination.
The Mason-Dixon poll, made available to McClatchy Newspapers and NBC News, offered disappointing news for two candidates who previously had been polling well in South Carolina. John Edwards, a South Carolina native who won the primary in 2004, was well behind Obama and Clinton on the Democratic side. Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, appeared to have lost many of his supporters to Thompson, and was far back in the GOP field.
Although it is still nearly seven months off, the first Southern presidential primary is proving a major attraction to candidates in both parties, who are spending extensive time in South Carolina.
Obama led in the new poll with 34 percent of likely voters to 25 percent for Clinton. Edwards was third at 12 percent. Sen. Joe Biden was at 2 percent; so was former Vice President Al Gore, who has given no indication of running but whose name was volunteered by some voters. Twenty-four percent were undecided.
Thompson, a television actor and former Tennessee senator, topped Giuliani by 25 percent to 21 percent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was next at 11 percent, followed by McCain at 7 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 5 percent. Huckabee has gotten strong notices in the last two Republican debates. Twenty-eight percent were undecided.
The new poll was striking evidence of Thompson's rise from nowhere in early presidential readings to potential front-runner status. Thompson's first campaign swing as he edges toward a formal candidacy will be in South Carolina on June 27.
"Thompson could be emerging as the Southern candidate," said Brad Coker, managing director of the Mason-Dixon poll.
McCain's slide into single digits might reflect his support for the immigration reform package, legislation that is unpopular among South Carolina Republicans. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was booed at a recent GOP state gathering when he sought to defend the reforms.
"His support among base Republicans is slipping away," Coker said of McCain.
Giuliani's performance in the wake of Sept. 11 and his strong support for the war in Iraq and national security have, so far, overcome doubts among South Carolina Republicans about his moderate views on abortion and other social issues. Romney, meanwhile, has found only moderate traction in the state and has been focusing his campaign advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire.
For Democrats, the most crucial group of voters in South Carolina are blacks, who by some estimates could make up more than half of the party's primary voters.
Nationally, Clinton leads Obama among black voters. But in South Carolina, likely voters overwhelmingly favored Obama (41 percent) over Clinton (18 percent). About one-third of the black voters in South Carolina remained undecided.
"As long as he maintains his edge in the black community, Obama has the edge in South Carolina," said Coker.
Earlier South Carolina polls have mostly shown Clinton with a lead over Obama and Edwards still in the hunt.
Edwards has been counting on a strong showing in South Carolina, but his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war and drift to the left on other issues may not be playing well with the state's pro-military, generally conservative voters.
South Carolina's Democratic primary is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 29 and Republican primary for Feb. 2.
The telephone poll, conducted June 13-15, involved 329 likely Democratic primary voters and 423 likely Republican primary voters. The margin of error was plus or minus 5.5 percentage points for the Democratic poll, and plus or minus 4.8 percentage points for the Republican poll.