WASHINGTON — Rudolph W. Giuliani has been well ahead of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in nationwide polls, but he is far weaker in the crucial states that will cast early votes in the nominating process next year, according to a new Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll that underscores how unsettled the GOP race remains.
Among Republican voters, Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, trails Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he lags behind Fred Thompson in South Carolina.
However, Giuliani is only a few points behind the leader in New Hampshire and South Carolina -- within the poll's margin of error -- suggesting that the race in those two states is too tight for anyone to be declared a clear front-runner.
In a worrisome finding for all the Republican candidates, the poll also found that many GOP voters in those key states are only lightly committed to their choices: Though they have been showered with attention by the campaigns, a sizable 72% of Iowa Republicans who say they favor a candidate also say they may decide to back someone else.
Among Democrats in those three states, the race is more firmly settled: The poll found that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has consolidated her lead on a sturdy foundation of support among women, blacks and, in some states, labor union households. And while Clinton previously had established leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, she now appears to be gaining momentum in Iowa, long considered friendly territory for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
The poll surveyed registered voters who planned to vote in the three early primaries or caucuses. Supervised by Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, it was conducted Sept. 6-10, just after Thompson officially joined the Republican race. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 5 percentage points; among Iowa Democrats it was 4 percentage points.
Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are three of the most important states that start the presidential voting season in January. Hotly contested races in both parties have prompted the candidates to focus most intently on those three states, believing victories there will provide momentum to win in the bigger states that follow.
Key findings about the Republican front-runners are:
* In Iowa, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, posts a solid lead, with support from 28% of GOP voters. Giuliani and Thompson trail with 16% each. Arizona Sen. John McCain's faltering campaign drew 7% in the survey.
* In New Hampshire, Romney tops Giuliani 28% to 23%, a lead that is within the poll's margin of error. McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, is backed by 12%. Thompson drew 11%, showing little bounce from his splashy national campaign announcement via late-night television and webcast.
* In South Carolina, where Thompson is hoping to trade on his Southern roots, the former Tennessee senator leads Giuliani 26% to 23%, within the poll's margin of error. The result is a reversal from a Times/Bloomberg survey in June, when Giuliani outpolled Thompson.
Taken together, the results underscore that voters who have had the closest view of the Republican field see the race far differently than do voters nationwide.
Though Giuliani has built no clear lead in any early-voting state, he tops his closest competitor, Thompson, with a nearly 9-point margin in national polls, according to an analysis of multiple surveys by the website Pollster.com.
The Times/Bloomberg survey also reveals that Republicans remain dissatisfied with their field of candidates, even after Thompson's long-awaited entry into the race. In South Carolina, 28% of Republicans are dissatisfied with the party's candidates.
"This is a really scary election for a Republican," John Haley, an Iowa butcher who participated in the poll, said in a follow-up interview. "I'm not feeling confident."
The results from early-voting states will probably encourage Romney, who started out as one of the least-known of the Republican contenders and has invested heavily in campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. The bet seems to be paying off with strong showings in those two states.
The poll also provides a window into what voters in those states like about Romney.
Some 23% of Iowa Republicans rank Romney as the candidate most likely to be the strongest leader -- a remarkable challenge to Giuliani, chosen by 21%, because Giuliani has made leadership strength his calling card.
One-fifth of Iowa Republicans also choose Romney as the candidate who would be best on social issues, a larger share than any other candidate. That is striking, because Romney has had to labor to convince religious conservatives that he has abandoned his past support for abortion rights.