WASHINGTON Mike Huckabee has vaulted from nowhere into second place nationally in the Republican presidential race, riding a burst of support from evangelicals, Southerners and conservatives, a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll shows.
Meanwhile, according to a new Newsweek survey, Huckabee has also charged ahead of Mitt Romney in Iowa, where a recent AP poll had them in a virtual tie. The Newsweek survey shows Huckabee with 39 percent of the GOP vote in Iowa and Romney with 17 percent. Huckabee's lead among evangelicals in the early-caucus state is even more substantial.
The surge 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 national front-runner, yet while his support has long 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 AP interview. "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 nationwide AP-Ipsos poll showed Giuliani at 26 percent among Republican and GOP-leaning voters, about where he has been since spring. Huckabee has 18 percent, up from 10 percent in an AP-Ipsos survey a month ago and 3 percent in July.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona has 13 percent, Romney 12 percent and Thompson 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.
While Romney and Huckabee share the lead in other recent Iowa polls, the Newsweek survey is the first to show the former Arkansas governor with such a dramatic margin. Beyond Huckabee's 39 percent and Romney's 17 percent, Thompson has 10 percent, Guiliani 9 percent, Ron Paul 8 percent and McCain 6 percent.
Among GOP evangelicals in the new poll, Huckabee leads Romney by 47 percent to 14 percent, though the two are even among non-evangelical Republicans.
In the Democratic race, Hillary Rodham Clinton, with 35 percent, is seen as the stronger leader with the proper experience to be president, while Barack Obama, at 29 percent, is viewed as the more likable and likelier to bring about needed change. John Edwards has 18 percent and Bill Richardson 9 percent.
With other Iowa surveys showing similar slippage by Romney, if not more, officials said the campaign is giving strong consideration to television ads attacking Huckabee, possibly for tax increases that took effect while he was governor.
Thus far, none of the candidates has launched negative commercials, which can run the risk of backfiring. At the same time, a defeat in Iowa would be difficult to absorb for Romney, who has poured millions into the state and has a far more sophisticated statewide organization than does the former Arkansas governor.
A Baptist minister who mixes a folksy manner with an emphasis on his faith, Huckabee now has the support nationally 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. In the new AP-Ipsos national survey, Clinton has about a 2-to-1 lead over Obama, 45 percent to 23 percent, with Edwards at 12 percent, though a recent AP-Pew poll showed a three-way battle among them in Iowa.
Just a month ago in the GOP race, Thompson was in second place with 19 percent. Along with his 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 LDS religion. In a speech Thursday in College Station, Texas, he 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 with 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.
Contributing: AP director of surveys Trevor Tompson and AP news survey specialist Dennis Junius