While Republican John McCain remains the front-runner in the South Carolina presidential primary, the outcome is up in the air as many voters are still considering their options, according to a FOX News poll released Friday.
Nearly one out of five likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina says they are unsure which candidate they will support on Saturday. Mitt Romney won the Michigan primary earlier in the week, while McCain won the New Hampshire primary and Mike Huckabee won in Iowa, leaving the Republican Party without a clear favorite.
The new FOX News poll shows McCain holds onto his lead in South Carolina by capturing the support of 27 percent followed by Huckabee at 20 percent and Romney in third with 15 percent. Fred Thompson, who was hoping to perform well in a state neighboring his home state of Tennessee, receives 11 percent, up just two points from earlier in the month.
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"In most situations, a candidate would be thrilled with a 7-point lead a day or so out from an election. But, given the volatility of the Republican race, the margins of error involved, and the high level of undecided voters, you’d have to characterize the South Carolina race as up for grabs," says Ernest Paicopolos, principal of Opinion Dynamics Corporation.
Huckabee has improved his standing by 2 percentage points, while Romney has dropped 2 points from the previous poll (an overnight poll on January 9).
The telephone poll of 500 likely South Carolina Republican primary voters was conducted by Opinion Dynamics Corporation for FOX News from January 16 to January 17 (after the Michigan primary). There is a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for results based on the entire sample.
In a state with several military bases and more Vietnam veterans than any state in the country, McCain’s background as a Navy officer and a Vietnam veteran is a plus. Among those living in a military household, McCain has a double-digit advantage: 33 percent to Huckabee’s 18 percent and Romney’s 17 percent. Over half of likely Republican primary voters in the state live in a military household (52 percent).
Evangelical Christians were a key part of Huckabee’s win in Iowa and almost two-thirds of likely voters in the South Carolina Republican primary describe themselves as evangelical Christians (64 percent); among this group the former Baptist minister has a slim 4-point edge: 27 percent Huckabee and 23 percent McCain. In Iowa, Huckabee won among evangelicals by nearly 30 points.
Among independents voting in the Republican primary on Saturday, McCain bests Huckabee by a wide 20 point margin (34 percent to 14 percent). Independents helped McCain achieve his victory in New Hampshire, and this swing voting group can also vote in either primary in South Carolina.
McCain also has a narrow 4-point advantage over Huckabee among self-identified Republicans.
In addition to the high number of voters saying they are undecided, there is even some wiggle room among those supporting a candidate.
To be sure, majorities of those backing Romney (80 percent), McCain (73 percent), Thompson (73 percent) and Huckabee (68 percent) say they are certain to vote for their candidate. Yet that leaves a significant minority of each candidate’s supporters — from 20 percent to 32 percent — in the "moveable" column.
Although Thompson is trailing the front-runners in the overall vote, his supporters (78 percent) are the most likely to think he can beat the Democratic candidate in November. This is more than Romney supporters (66 percent), McCain supporters (57 percent) and Huckabee supporters (56 percent).
The poll finds that voters in this race are looking for a candidate who "stands up for what he believes." Half (50 percent) say this is the most important candidate attribute, while the remaining split between saying it is important for their candidate to be a "true conservative" (19 percent) and to have the "right experience" (19 percent).
Huckabee (26 percent) and McCain (25 percent) are seen by more voters as the most honest and trustworthy of the Republican contenders, followed by Romney (14 percent) and Thompson (12 percent).
On being a strong leader, McCain (36 percent) has the clear advantage – outdistancing Romney (20 percent), Huckabee (12 percent) and Giuliani (11 percent).
When asked to identify the "true conservative," more voters pick Thompson (28 percent), followed by Huckabee (21 percent), McCain (12 percent) and Romney (12 percent). Thompson jumped 12 points on this characteristic from the early January poll, when both Huckabee and Romney bested him.
And just as the FOX News exit poll in Michigan showed earlier this week, the economy is the most important issue to voters in South Carolina. More than one in four says the economy (27 percent) is the top issue in deciding their vote, with immigration at 18 percent, homeland security is most important to 15 percent and 11 percent say the Iraq war.
Economy voters are more likely to back McCain (30 percent) over Huckabee (16 percent) and Romney (16 percent). Among voters saying immigration is the top issue, Romney (23 percent) captures the highest amount of support, followed by Huckabee (16 percent), Thompson (16 percent), with McCain coming in a close fourth among this group (15 percent).