WASHINGTON — Actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson leads the Republican presidential field in Nevada even though he has not declared his candidacy, according to a new poll made available to McClatchy Newspapers and NBC News.
The poll by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research showed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with a substantial lead over her Democratic rivals.
Nevada could have an influential role in selecting the presidential nominees in 2008 because the state will hold its nominating caucuses on Jan. 19 - five days after Iowa and three days before New Hampshire’s primary.
Thompson's strength in Nevada, which mirrors his recent surge in national polls, underscores his potential to shake up the Republican race if he decides to run. The former Tennessee senator is recruiting a campaign staff and testing his appeal as a candidate.
The poll showed Thompson with 25 percent support among Republicans who are considered likely to attend a nominating caucus, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 20 percent, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani with 17 percent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona with 8 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with 3 percent. The other Republicans had 1 percent support or less.
On the Democratic side, Clinton led with 39 percent, followed by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois with 17 percent, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina with 12 percent, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson with 7 percent and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware with 2 percent. The other Democrats had 1 percent or less.
Clinton's strong showing came as no surprise to Nevada political analysts, who said the New York senator is well ahead of her rivals in organization. The results signal problems for Richardson, a Hispanic from the region who is counting on a strong showing in Nevada.
"That's consistent with what we're hearing. She's got a stronger team on the ground," said Nevada Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, a Democrat who recently endorsed Clinton.
In contrast, Thompson has done nothing publicly to prepare for the nominating caucuses, which require significant organization to guarantee a good turnout at the time-consuming meetings.
"That shows that Republicans are really looking for a candidate. Nobody is, in a sense, grabbing the hearts of the Republicans," said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. "It's really bad news for McCain. He's a Westerner. He's certainly not making any forward progress."
The independent polling firm interviewed 800 likely caucus goers - 400 from each party - on June 20-22. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent.