WASHINGTON -- South Carolina appears poised to shake up the 2008 presidential race, with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Fred Thompson the frontrunners in a new state survey by Mason-Dixon.
With strong support from the African-American community, Illinois Sen. Obama has assumed a strong lead over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. On the Republican side, Thompson zoomed to the top spot, slightly ahead of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, even though Thompson hasn't yet announced his bid for the GOP nomination.
The Mason-Dixon poll, made available to McClatchy Newspapers and NBC News, offered disappointing news for two candidates who previously had been polling well in South Carolina. John Edwards, a South Carolina native who won the primary in 2004, was well behind Obama and Clinton on the Democratic side. Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, appeared to have lost many of his supporters to Thompson.
Although it is still nearly seven months off, the first Southern presidential primary is proving a major attraction to candidates in both parties, who are spending extensive time in South Carolina.
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The new poll was striking evidence of Thompson's rise from nowhere in early presidential readings to potential front-runner status. Thompson's first campaign swing as he edges toward a formal candidacy will be in South Carolina on June 27.
"Thompson could be emerging as the Southern candidate," said Brad Coker, managing director of the Mason-Dixon poll.
McCain's slide into single digits might reflect his support for the immigration reform package, legislation that is unpopular among South Carolina Republicans. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was booed at a recent GOP state gathering when he sought to defend the reforms.
For Democrats, the most crucial group of voters in South Carolina are blacks, who by some estimates could make up more than half of the party's primary voters.
Nationally, Clinton leads Obama among black voters. But in South Carolina, likely voters overwhelmingly favored Obama (41 percent) over Clinton (18 percent). About one-third of the black voters in South Carolina remained undecided.
"As long as he maintains his edge in the black community, Obama has the edge in South Carolina," said Coker.
Mason-Dixon poll results
Fred Thompson 25%
Rudy Giuliani 21%
Mitt Romney 11%
John McCain 7%
Mike Huckabee 5%
Barack Obama 34%
Hillary Clinton 25%
John Edwards 12%
Joe Biden 2%
Al Gore 2%
The telephone poll, conducted June 13-15, involved 329 likely Democratic primary voters and 423 likely Republican primary voters. The margin of error was plus or minus 5.5 percentage points for the Democrat poll and plus or minus 4.8 percentage points for the Republican poll.