Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Hillary Clinton remain the clear front-runners in the New Hampshire presidential primary, but both have vulnerabilities that could erode their support among voters in the weeks ahead, a new Boston Globe poll indicates.
Two months before the New Hampshire primary, Romney leads his nearest rival, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, 32 percent to 20 percent, with Senator John McCain of Arizona third at 17 percent. Among Democratic voters, Clinton, the New York senator, leads Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, 35 percent to 21 percent, with former senator John Edwards of North Carolina third at 15 percent.
The primary contest in both parties remains highly fluid - just 16 percent of likely Republican voters said they had definitely decided whom to back; among likely Democratic primary voters, only 24 percent are firm in their choice. And neither Clinton nor Romney has closed the deal with their party's voters, the poll suggests.
"It's still really open," said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the Globe poll.
In the Democratic race, Clinton's lead has narrowed 9 points since September, when a CNN/WMUR poll conducted by UNH showed her with a 43-to-20 percent advantage over Obama. Among Republicans, Romney has reestablished the lead over Giuliani that he enjoyed in the summer, after the same September poll showed the two candidates neck and neck.
The Globe survey of 400 likely Democratic voters and 404 likely Republican voters in New Hampshire, conducted from Nov. 2 to Nov. 7, has a margin of error for each party subsample of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
The poll also found that majorities of both Republicans and Democrats favor diplomatic steps over military action or further sanctions to resolve a showdown with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program, views that could work against hawkish candidates who have advocated a harder line. A majority of voters in both parties also say that building relationships with Muslims and improving homeland security would be more effective in combating terrorism than fighting Al Qaeda or waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the most part, Romney and Clinton fared well when voters were asked about their character and personal qualities. GOP voters see Romney as the most trustworthy, the most experienced, and the most capable of bringing "needed change" to the country, suggesting that his message of "strong new leadership" - bolstered by his heavy TV advertising in New Hampshire - is selling. He has also gained ground on Giuliani on the issue of electability, which is central to Giuliani's pitch.
Democratic voters, including many Obama supporters, see Clinton as by far the most experienced candidate - 47 percent for Clinton, compared with just 4 percent who picked Obama. And they believe she is best positioned to beat the Republican nominee next November. Both are impressions Clinton has worked diligently to cultivate.
But Romney and Clinton both have weaknesses on several fronts with the potential to shake up the race as the primary rivalries intensify, the poll suggests.
Only 12 percent of Republican voters said Romney was the best candidate to confront terrorism, compared with 31 percent who picked McCain, and 29 percent who selected Giuliani. On the campaign trail, Romney has cast "radical jihad" as the gravest threat the next president will face.
Also, Romney's supporters are the least likely to have definitely made up their minds compared with backers of the other top-tier GOP candidates.
"He has a pizzazz in him that I think I kind of like, as far as seeing him be a leader and make some changes," said Dave Faulkner, 59, a high school guidance director in Lebanon, N.H., who was among those surveyed. But Faulkner said he is still looking at other candidates.
The poll shows that Clinton's support has dropped as Obama and Edwards have stepped up their criticism of her positions and her forthrightness - attacks that have escalated since the presidential debate late last month, where they accused her of equivocating on illegal immigration and other issues.
Voters polled believe Clinton is less "trustworthy" than Obama - 19 percent said she was the most trustworthy candidate, compared with 26 percent who said Obama was. Only half of those who said they would vote for Clinton listed her as the most trustworthy. The results follow a national Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey released last week in which 43 percent of respondents indicated a negative view of Clinton's "honesty."
In addition, 44 percent of Democratic voters in the Globe poll said a candidate's original position on whether to go to war with Iraq was "very important" to their vote. That suggests that Obama, the only leading Democratic candidate to oppose the war from the start, has potential to capitalize on an important distinction with Clinton and Edwards, both of whom voted to authorize the invasion as senators.
But many voters clearly do not hold Clinton's war vote against her. Mo Landry, a 50-year-old public employee and Clinton supporter from Loudon, N.H., said she was not concerned about Clinton's vote for the war, because she had followed a similar trajectory herself: Landry backed the invasion but now wants to see US troops come home.
"I supported it at the beginning, too," Landry said. "Now that we've done it, it's time to go."
Managing the war in Iraq, preventing terrorism, and containing the perceived nuclear threat from Iran have been defining foreign policy issues in the campaign, with candidates in both parties sparring over who has the right approaches and experience to protect the country.
Despite the combative views of Republican presidential contenders, likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire favor diplomacy over force in dealing with Iran and with terrorism.
Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters said they consider Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program "a serious threat" to American security, but nearly as many, 59 percent, said the United States should seek diplomatic solutions with allies or talk directly to Iranian leaders, compared with 32 percent who favored military action or tougher economic sanctions. Republicans said, by a 28-to-19 percent margin, that cultivating relationships in the Muslim world was a better way to fight terrorism than capturing Osama bin Laden and fighting Al Qaeda.
A majority of Republican voters, 54 percent, said they would be willing to surrender some civil liberties if it "significantly improv[ed] our security against terrorists," but three-fourths of Democrats said they were unwilling to make that bargain.
More Democrats said they consider Iran a threat to the Middle East than a threat to the United States, and Democrats overwhelmingly favor working with allies and talking directly with Iran over using force or imposing new sanctions. More than half of Democrats surveyed said building relationships in the Middle East was the best way to combat terrorism.
Almost two-thirds of Democratic voters said healthcare was the most or second-most important issue facing the country, followed by Iraq, and the economy. Republicans narrowly chose Iraq as the most important issue, followed by the economy and illegal immigration, a lightning rod in the GOP. More than half of Republican voters said a candidate's position on illegal immigration was "very important" to their vote.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.