Poll: Walker holds 7-point lead over GOP presidential rivals in Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker holds a 7-point advantage among Iowan voters over the rest of the crowded Republican field in the scramble for the party's 2016 nomination for president, a new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll finds.

The poll, released late Saturday afternoon, shows Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee rounding out the top five in the state, which, as the first-in-the-nation caucus, is a critical battleground for presidential hopefuls.
Walker captured 17% of the vote among likely GOP caucus-goers. He first gained notice in Iowa when he sparred with Wisconsin's labor unions in 2011, and he has played up his connections to the Hawkeye state and his background as the son of a Baptist preacher. He surged to the front of the Republican pack in the state earlier this year after a strong showing at the Freedom Summit, and became the first 2016 contender to open an office in the state.
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The poll found that two-thirds of likely Republican caucus-goers view the Wisconsin governor favorably, the highest among candidates in the poll.
    Walker has not declared his candidacy, but he is expected to do so later this summer after completing work on his state's budget.
    Paul and Carson were tied for second place with 10% of the vote. The Kentucky senator with a strong libertarian streak was most successful among the candidates in attracting moderate Republicans, independents who plan on attending the GOP caucuses and likely party caucus-goers under the age of 45.
    The poll found, however, that Paul has seen his favorability rating drop by 9 percentage points in the state since January.
    Carson's strong showing comes on the heels of a bump he received in a Quinnipiac poll released earlier this week. But it's unclear what's fueling his rise or whether the social conservative and staunch Obamacare opponent can sustain his recent lofty rankings.
    Florida Sen. Marco Rubio finished tied for sixth place with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the caucuses in a narrow victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. Rubio, however, topped the list of contenders whom likely caucus-goers say would be their second choice. The poll suggests he seems to have an easier path in the state than Bush, whom 35% of those surveyed said they "would never support."
    The tightly bunched field reflects the volatility of the Republican race at a time when the field could expand to nearly 20 candidates.
    Walker has led the field in public polls for several months, but many political operatives in Iowa believe the race is wide open. Though he has the advantage of being a governor of a neighboring state, Walker could face fierce competition here from several rivals, including Carson and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose organizers have been contacting supporters across the Hawkeye State.
    The two most recent former caucus winners, Huckabee and Santorum, could also pose strong competition in Iowa. On a recent visit to the state, Santorum claimed he was in a stronger position to win the caucuses this time around than in 2012.
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    On Saturday, Rubio became the latest Republican presidential candidate to decide to forgo the Iowa Straw Poll.
    "We are running a lean campaign, so we will only spend money on contests that award delegates," campaign spokesman Alex Conant said.
    Bush and Huckabee have previously indicated they will not participate in the August event.
    The poll, conducted between May 25-29 for The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, was based on telephone interviews with 402 registered Iowa voters who say they definitely or probably will attend the 2016 Republican caucuses, and 437 registered voters who say they definitely or probably will attend the 2016 Democratic caucuses.
    Interviewers contacted 4,161 randomly selected active voters from the Iowa secretary of state's voter registration list by telephone. Responses were adjusted by age, sex and congressional district to reflect all active voters in the voter registration list.
    The paper said questions based on the subsample of 437 likely Democratic caucus attendees have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points, and questions based on the subsample of 402 likely Republican caucus attendees have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.