WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney leads John McCain days before a potentially pivotal Republican primary in Michigan, with Romney's business experience and home-state ties apparently helping in a state where the economy is taking center stage, according to a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll.
The rise of the economy as an issue and Romney's new strength after two losses underscored how volatile the campaign has become as the party grapples to find a new leader and direction for the post-Bush era.
No winner has yet to gain a bounce into the next contest, and in Michigan, 11 percent of likely primary voters were still undecided, a bloc big enough to swing the vote in any direction. Even among those who say they support a candidate, 39 percent said they still could change their minds.
Likely voters in Michigan rank the economy and jobs their top concern, well above some of the other issues that had dominated much of the Republican debate nationally for months, such as national security and terrorism, taxes and government spending, moral issues, and illegal immigration.
That's little surprise in a state with an ailing auto industry and the nation's highest unemployment rate. But it also could be a sign of a shifting political landscape as the rest of the country also starts to see warning signs of an economic slump.
If it helps Romney get back into the race after two disappointing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, it could shake up the campaign yet again and turn it into a three-person contest among him, Iowa winner Mike Huckabee and New Hampshire winner John McCain.
"Romney still lives," said Brad Coker, managing partner of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll. "At least he still has a chance. If he can hang onto this lead, the race really gets interesting."
That's still a big if, especially given the way polls have failed this year to detect late shifts of voting in Iowa and New Hampshire. This survey, which measured voter sentiment through Friday night, is not a prediction of the final outcome.
- Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, had 30 percent;
Romney's making what could be a do-or-die stand in Michigan, playing up his background as a successful business executive as well as his home-state ties as the son of the late George Romney, himself a successful businessman as chairman of American Motors and a popular Michigan governor.
He also chided McCain in a recent debate for telling Michigan voters that some of their lost jobs would never come back. McCain called it "straight talk" accompanied by a promise of job training.. Romney called it heartless, and may have struck a chord.
Romney led McCain by 2 to 1 among voters who ranked the economy and jobs their top concern. He led Huckabee by a slightly greater margin among those voters.
He also led McCain by 2 to 1 among likely voters who called themselves Republicans.
"Romney's got business experience. We don't need another senator," said George Nelson, a Republican from Grand Rapids who also remembers fondly the elder Romney's years as an auto executive.
McCain owes his solid standing to independents and Democrats, taking 38 percent of their support, while Huckabee had 22 percent and Romney had 18 percent.
The poll found 25 percent of likely voters calling themselves independents and 5 percent calling themselves Democrats. Anyone who's registered can vote in the Michigan primary.
McCain also led among voters who rank terrorism and security their top concern.
"He'd handle the war better than anybody else. And I truly believe he'd get rid of pork-barrel spending," said conservative Democrat Nancy Crego, a retired teaching consultant from Lansing. "He is someone I could get really excited about."
Huckabee has courted working-class voters with a form of little-guy populism — he's subtly compared Romney to the guy who lays off people.
But he owes his standing to voters who rank moral and family issues their top concern -- the so-called values voters -- and to religious conservatives.
Evangelical Christians represented 46 of the likely primary vote in the poll, and Huckabee got 31 percent of their support while Romney got 23 percent.
The setback for the Baptist preacher with the strongly religious message is rest of the likely primary vote. Among the 54 percent who say they are not evangelical Christians, just 5 percent support Huckabee.
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 Republican primary voters in Michigan was conducted by telephone Jan. 9-11. 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 poll's 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.
COMPLETE POLL RESULTS Download the survey in PDF format.