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HALL COLUMN: Pollster: GOP needs top candidate

A poll released by the Capital Survey Research Center shows that state Republican voters are not sure who they will choose as their presidential candidate.

In a poll conducted over six days &045; Feb. 19-22, Feb. 28 and March 6 &045; former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton were the favored candidates to carry their party’s nominations.

But of those respondents who said they plan to vote in the Republican primary, more than half &045; 51.5 percent &045; said their preferred candidate could or would likely change.

The CSRC is the polling arm of the Alabama Education Association and does periodic statewide polling on issues generally related to education and economic development. Johnson said that as the center does statewide polling that he will continue to do presidential polling.

The findings of the poll bear out several interesting &045; while not surprising &045; items. One of those is that neither Giuliani nor Arizona Sen. John McCain have a commanding lead among Republicans. Giuliani led Republican respondents with 28.4 percent. McCain trailed at second with 22.6 percent.

Furthermore, a majority of Republican respondents show little solid loyalty to their current favorite.

He called McCain &8220;an enigma who in the past was not identified as a Southern conservative but who recently has been trying to curry favor among mainstream conservatives.&8221;

Giuliani is not your typical Southern candidate either. He has an Italian last name, had a messy, high-profile divorce and is from New York City.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is little known. Even though he is trying to cast himself as a social conservative, he seems more akin to New England liberals when it comes to social votes.

And finally, there is former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has just begun his confessional tour, admitting that while he was leading the impeachment process against former President Bill Clinton &045; a process born from Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky &045; Gingrich himself was cheating on his wife.

The only other Republican candidate polled by the CSRC was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. If anyone fits the bill of what a successful Republican presidential candidate should be, it’s Huckabee &045; a true conservative and a Southern governor.

But Johnson says no one knows Huckabee. That’s because Huckabee has little money. Such a situation has killed many a presidential candidate and will claim even more before next year rolls around.

But Johnson believes that someone like Huckabee &045; or even former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson &045; could start to lure big money Republicans to their corner if polls continue to show a dead heat between Giuliani and McCain with Republican voters saying they are holding their noses when voicing support.

On the Democratic side, the picture among Alabama voters is clearer. Sen. Clinton led the field with 34.8 percent. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was second with 19.4 percent. Former vice presidential nominee and South Carolina Sen. John Edwards was third with 9.4 percent.

Johnson said the dynamic he found most interesting here was that Edwards has failed to gain any traction in the South, despite being a Southerner who was the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Johnson added the March 6 polling date to this survey to see if Obama’s appearance in Selma changed the polling pattern.

Interestingly enough, at least in Alabama, this poll shows that Obama cannot take the black vote for granted. In fact, he trailed Clinton by double-digits among black voters. Clinton polled at 49 percent of black voters while Obama had only 38 percent.

Johnson believes that Obama’s strength is based on his &8220;attractiveness, newness and freshness&8221;. As time goes on, Obama will have to set a clear agenda and strong platform to gain on Clinton. Only 41.9 percent of Democratic respondents said they were likely to change their vote &045; but that’s still enough to swing an election.

In Alabama, the political party split was nearly even. Of the respondents, 41.2 percent said they would vote in the Democratic primary while 47.2 percent said they would vote in the Republican primary. Comparatively, 40.4 percent identified themselves as Democrats and 48.1 percent as Republicans.

While most of the respondents who identified themselves as either a Republican or a Democrat said they likely would vote in their party’s primary, partisanship seems to be less a factor than in 2000 and 2004.

Of notable interest from the survey was the reaction respondents had to the directions of the state and the nation. More than 60 percent said Alabama &045; under a Republican governor &045; was on the right track. However, only 34.5 percent said the United States &045; under a Republican president &045; was on the right track.

The latter dynamic was a major force in Congressional elections last year. Only time will tell if it will have the same impact on the presidential race.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com.