WASHINGTON – Mike Huckabee has vaulted from nowhere into second place in the Republican presidential race, riding a burst of support from evangelicals, Southerners and conservatives, a poll showed Friday.
The upsurge by the former Arkansas governor has come largely at the expense of Fred Thompson, according to the national survey by The Associated Press and Ipsos. Thompson has dropped after failing to galvanize the party's right-wing core as much as some had expected.
Rudy Giuliani remains the front-runner, yet while his support long has been steady it shows signs of fraying. Huckabee's growing strength in the South has come as the former New York mayor's support there has dropped, the poll found.
"Why not me?" Huckabee said in an interview Thursday. "I meet all the criteria. I'm conservative, but I think I appeal to a broader set of voters. And I think that people are also looking for someone with whom they can identify."
The poll showed Giuliani at 26 percent among Republican and GOP-leaning voters, about where he has been since spring. Huckabee has 18 percent, 8 percentage points more than in an AP-Ipsos survey a month ago.
That put Huckabee in a virtual tie for second with Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had 13 percent. Also close were Mitt Romney with 12 percent and Thompson with 11 percent.
Huckabee's ascent in the national poll echoed his upswing in Iowa, whose Jan. 3 nominating caucuses will be the first votes in the 2008 presidential campaign. A recent AP-Pew Research Center poll showed Huckabee in a virtual tie there with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, though Huckabee trails significantly in New Hampshire and South Carolina, two other important states that vote early next year.
A Baptist minister who mixes a folksy manner with an emphasis on his faith, Huckabee now has the support of 25 percent of white evangelical voters, 23 percent of conservatives and 28 percent of Southerners, the AP-Ipsos poll found. That is a solid increase in each of those areas since November, and a lead or share of the lead in each category.
"It's his humanness. He's not like a robot," said Natosha Romine, 24, a homemaker from Dallas and Huckabee supporter interviewed in the survey. "You could tell he's been through some stuff, like he's one of us."
The Democratic race showed virtually no change nationally from last month, even though a recent AP-Pew poll showed a three-way battle in Iowa. In the new AP-Ipsos national survey, Hillary Rodham Clinton has about a 2-to-1 lead over Barack Obama, 45 percent to 23 percent, with John Edwards at 12 percent.
Just a month ago in the GOP race, Thompson was in second place with 19 percent. Along with his 8 percentage point drop in total support since then, his backing from conservatives also has fallen, though his support from evangelicals and Southerners has stayed roughly the same. In all three categories, he now trails Huckabee.
"You need to be able to have a broader based conservative coalition" than Huckabee has to win, said John McLaughlin, Thompson's pollster, who said the race remains fluid. "The question is can he broaden? The challenge to the other candidates is can we get a greater share of conservative votes."
Giuliani's national support has barely budged since spring, but his backing from Southerners has fallen since November. He now trails Huckabee in that category, and is about tied with him for conservatives and evangelicals. The AP-Pew polling showed Giuliani trailing in Iowa and New Hampshire and sharing the South Carolina lead with Thompson and Romney.
"While other candidates have gone up and down, the mayor's support has stayed steady and strong," said Giuliani spokeswoman Maria Comella.
A front-runner in the earliest contests until Huckabee caught him in Iowa, Romney has met resistance because of some voters' qualms about his Mormon religion. In a speech Thursday in College Station, Texas, Romney said while he would never abandon his religious beliefs, his church would not influence his decisions as president.
Evangelicals represent about four in 10 GOP voters nationally, according to the new AP-Ipsos survey. That makes them a crucial Republican constituency, though it also underscores why the more moderate Giuliani remains a strong contender.
Despite Huckabee's strength with evangelical voters, he has had a tougher time building support among less religious Republicans. He had the support of only 14 percent of non-evangelicals in the survey, compared to Giuliani's 31 percent.
"If he's going to be successful in the long run, he has to expand his appeal from social conservatives," said Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster not affiliated with a presidential candidate. "If he's able to do that, he'll give anybody a run for their money."
The poll involved telephone interviews with 1,009 adults nationally and was conducted from Dec. 3-5. It had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Included were interviews with 469 Democrats and people leaning Democratic with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points, and 376 Republicans and GOP leaners with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5.1 percentage points.