FOX News Poll: McCain Takes the Lead in South Carolina GOP Primary

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Following his win this week in New Hampshire, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain takes the lead in South Carolina — though Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are both close behind.

A new FOX News South Carolina Republican presidential primary poll shows McCain is now the front-runner with 25 percent, followed by Iowa caucus winner Huckabee at 18 percent and Romney at 17 percent. The results for all three top candidates are within the survey’s margin of sampling error.

Fred Thompson, who is from the neighboring state of Tennessee, captures the support of 9 percent, while Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul both receive 5 percent.

Click here for full results. (pdf)

Opinion Dynamics Corp. conducted the overnight telephone poll of 500 likely South Carolina Republican primary voters for FOX News on January 9 — the day after McCain won the New Hampshire primary. There is a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for results based on the entire sample.

While McCain clearly receives a nice bounce out of New Hampshire, the key voting group of Evangelical Christians that gave Huckabee his win in Iowa is splitting its vote in South Carolina.

Like in Iowa, about 6 of 10 likely voters in the South Carolina Republican primary are Evangelical Christians, and 23 percent of this group says they are backing Huckabee and 22 percent McCain, followed by Romney at 16 percent.

McCain is helped by the fact that only about one of three voters say it is important for them to share their candidate’s religious beliefs. A 66 percent majority says it is not important.

About half of Republicans in South Carolina are looking for a candidate who "stands up" for what he believes (47 percent), while others want a "true conservative" (21 percent) or a candidate who has the "right experience" (19 percent).

For voters saying the most important quality is for a candidate to "stand up" for his beliefs, 26 percent back McCain and 23 percent Huckabee. Those wanting a "true conservative" are most likely to be supporting Huckabee (26 percent) and Romney (24 percent), followed by Fred Thompson (16 percent). Nearly half of those wanting a candidate with the right experience are backing McCain.

McCain is seen as the most honest and trustworthy candidate, and also as the strongest leader.

The poll shows that several issues are important to Republicans in South Carolina, with the economy (17 percent), immigration (16 percent) and the war in Iraq (16 percent) all essentially tied as the "top" issue in deciding which candidate to support.

When asked the best way to handle illegal immigrants, 47 percent favor setting up a system for some of them to become legal residents, while nearly as many — 43 percent — back deporting as many as possible. This suggests that the immigration issue — a ‘hot button" for McCain in the past may not be as influential in South Carolina as some initially thought.

A 68 percent majority of these likely Republican primary voters says they approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president.