WASHINGTON – As the Republican presidential candidates arrive in Columbia, S.C., for a primary debate to be broadcast on FOX News, polls in the First-in-the-South presidential primary state show Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in a dog fight for first place.
The latest survey by respected Republican pollster Whit Ayers, who is unaligned with any campaign, shows McCain at 25 percent, leading Giuliani by 5 points. The poll has a 4.4 percent margin of error. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is in fifth place at 8 percent and behind two men — former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who aren't even in the race.
Watch live coverage of the First-in-the-South Republican Party Presidential Candidate debate on FOX News Channel and FOXNews.com on Tuesday, May 15, at 9 p.m. EDT.
Lee Bandy, who has covered South Carolina politics for more than 40 years, says McCain's double-digit lead for the last several months has been closed by Giuliani despite the fact that most Republicans disagree with the former mayor's socially liberal views
• Photo Essay: Preparing for the Debate
"Rudy kind of sneaked up on him, and it does surprise a lot of people that Rudy is running as strong as he is in a state like South Carolina, which is very conservative," Bandy said.
South Carolina has one of the nation's largest per capita populations of active and retired military, many of whom agree with McCain's ardent support for the Iraq mission. But bitter memories linger on the nasty 2000 battle against then-candidate George W. Bush, and McCain has earned the highest negative ratings in the GOP field.
Giuliani, whose liberal views on abortion, gay and gun rights are at odds with many in the Palmetto State's Republican Party, has the highest favorability — 74 percent with only 18 percent viewing him negatively.
For Romney, South Carolina is proving a tough nut to crack, and he's been running ads steadily that have raised his name recognition to a highly-competitive 87 percent. Only 54 percent view Romney favorably.
The three frontrunners and seven other Republicans vying for the 2008 nomination will all get their chance Tuesday night to leave their impressions on primary voters. Appearing on stage with the frontrunners at USC's Koger Center for the Arts are Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
The 90-minute debate will air from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. ET and will be moderated by "Special Report" anchor Brit Hume. Questions will be posed by two panelists — "FOX News Sunday" host Chris Wallace and White House correspondent Wendell Goler.
"This is part of the process of the American people getting to know and decide which candidate they are going to vote for, first in the Republican primary and then eventually for president so I think the purpose is seriously to give viewers some insights on information that allows them to make a more informed choice," Wallace said.
• Click here to read an interview with Brit Hume and Chris Wallace about their roles in the debate.
FOXNews.com will also be streaming the debate live and will have pre- and post-debate coverage hosted by "On the Record"'s Greta Van Susteren and FOX News Talk contributor Griff Jenkins.
The live Web stream coverage on FOXNews.com will feature eight University of South Carolina students debating politics and commenting on the Republican presidential candidates’ remarks.
The program will begin streaming live on FOXNews.com 30 minutes before the televised debate begins, and will run 30 minutes after the debate ends. Four students who are registered Republicans and four who are registered Democrats will debate issues that are important to them, and their microphones will be open during the debate, which they will be watching on a plasma screen television. Viewers on FOXNews.com will be able to hear real-time reaction from the students.
FOXNews.com will also offer a separate stream of the debate for viewers who may want to watch the debate online without commentary from the students.
After the debate, a 30-minute discussion and critique session will close out the Web stream.
All the candidates appearing met the established criteria to participate in the debate, said South Carolina Republican Party Communications Director Rob Godfrey. That included filing the appropriate paperwork establishing an exploratory committee, paying the appropriate fees to appear on the South Carolina Republican Party primary ballot and garnering at least 1 percent in state and national polling conducted between April 1-3 by FOX News and Opinion Dynamics.
• Photo Essay: Preparing for the Debate
Party Chairman Katon Dawson welcomed the candidates to make their cases to voters, and said he's prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve his state's coveted status as the first in the South to hold the primary.
"If we have to go to Halloween, and our version of presidential trick or treat, that's where we'll be," Dawson said, noting that if they have to, the South Carolina GOP will hold its primary on Jan. 26, three days ahead of the day decided by the Florida Legislature last week for the Sunshine State contest.
In any case, South Carolina's Republican Party officials say they are also prepared to deal with the possibility of double-voting since the Democratic Party primary is set for Jan. 29, and in an open registration state, that means some voters may try — illegally — to vote in both primaries.