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Poll: Romney emerges as New Hampshire front-runner

From Bill Schneider
CNN's Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Where does the Republican presidential race in New Hampshire stand? New Hampshire Republicans had a debate and now they have a new front-runner.

In early April, there were two front-runners in the New Hampshire Republican primary: Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani were tied for first place.

Now, after last week's CNN-WMUR-New Hampshire Union Leader debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, things have changed. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has picked up support, from 17 percent in April to 28 percent now. He's the new front-runner, by a narrow margin, while Giuliani and John McCain both lost support. They're still tied -- but for second, at 20 percent each.(Interactive: Poll results)

The remainder of the GOP's presidential contenders were in the low single digits. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he will decide whether to run in the fall, scored 4 percent; Texas congressman Ron Paul, the lone voice of opposition to the war in Iraq among Republican candidates, came in at 3 percent; Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were at 2 percent; and Colorado U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo rated less than 1 percent. (Read the complete poll results document -- PDF)

None of those polled chose California Rep. Duncan Hunter, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore or former Wisconsin governor and Health and Human Services Sec. Tommy Thompson.

Pollsters interviewed 309 New Hampshire residents who say they will vote in January's Republican primary, the first in the nation. The survey had a sampling error of 5.5 percentage points.

Familiarity helps Romney

Did the debate drive these changes? Not entirely. Fred Thompson did not participate in the debate -- he has not officially declared yet -- but Thompson also made gains.

New Hampshire Republicans are certainly familiar with Romney. He was governor of nearby Massachusetts for four years, and most New Hampshire residents get Boston media. (Read how Romney aides try to play down the 'Massachusetts factor')

But Romney did not start out as the front-runner, which suggests he has more than just familiarity going for him. Could it be his optimistic vision?

"We are a party of the future, and we have to stop worrying about the problems and thinking we can't deal with those," Romney said in the debate.

Romney was rated most likeable by New Hampshire Republicans (32 percent). McCain may have won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, but Republicans there don't seem to find him very likeable anymore (only 12 percent said he was most likeable).

But New Hampshire Republicans do not think Romney is the most electable candidate. That distinction goes, narrowly, to Giuliani, who proposes to re-run the 2004 campaign by calling on his fellow Republicans to unite around a cause, namely, "being on offense against terrorism, unlike the Democrats, who are on defense against terrorism.''

Voters give McCain the edge for being most willing to take an unpopular position. At least with Republicans.

"I'm going to give you a little straight talk. This war was very badly mismanaged for a long time," McCain said in response to a New Hampshire citizen's question.

Conservatives rally behind Romney

Romney's goal is to rally conservatives. He said, "I know that I've got conservative credentials, and that's one of the things that brings me to this race."

It's working -- Romney has a strong lead among conservative Republicans. And though he does less well with moderates, where McCain and Giuliani do better, conservatives are fueling the Romney surge in New Hampshire.

But undeclared candidate Fred Thompson also does well with conservatives and once Thompson becomes an active candidate, we could see a real battle with Romney for the conservative vote.

Much is at stake in New Hampshire -- particularly for Romney and McCain. Because Romney is from a neighboring state and McCain won the New Hampshire primary once before, the New Hampshire primary is a crucial test for both.

Only one of them is likely to come out of New Hampshire alive.

According to a new poll, Mitt Romney, left, has opened up a lead in New Hampshire over Rudy Giuliani, right.



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