Huckabee skyrockets among GOP voters in key Southern state

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(CNN) — Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has shot to the top of a new poll in South Carolina, leading Republican presidential candidates in the key Southern state.

Huckabee garnered 24 percent in the CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, conducted by phone between Sunday and Wednesday. The survey was released Friday.

When the same poll was conducted in July, Huckabee was in the lower tier, with 3 percent of support from registered GOP voters. Video Watch how Huckabee’s star is rising »

The survey suggested that Huckabee‘s personality was among his strengths. In particular, he tops the list when likely GOP voters are asked to name the candidate who is most believable. The South Carolina poll showed Huckabee rocketing ahead of his GOP rivals, including the former front-runner in the state, ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani, who led the July poll with 30 percent, dropped to a tie for third with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, both at 16 percent. Romney’s showing was a big improvement over his 6 percent standing in the previous survey.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee was second place, with 17 percent — slightly down from his previous 18 percent.

The poll showed Sen. John McCain of Arizona falling from 21 percent in July — the second highest — to fifth place with 13 percent. Rep. Ron Paul’s 11 percent for seventh place is a major boost from the 2 percent the Texas lawmaker garnered in the July survey.The sampling error for the poll of Republican voters in the South Carolina primary is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

South Carolina has figured as an important GOP state in past campaigns for the party’s nomination. The Republican establishment has relied on the Palmetto State to save its favored candidates, including George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.

South Carolina’s GOP primary is set for January 19, and the Democratic primary will be January 26.

The poll of Democratic primary voters showed Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York leading with 42 percent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois second at 34 percent and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina third with 16 percent. The remaining Democrats were at 3 percent or less. The poll’s sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points for Democratic primary voters.

Obama, who moved up 7 percentage points since the July poll, was helped by increased support among black voters. While in July, 33 percent of African-American Democrats said they would vote for Obama, he now has 45 percent of their support, compared with Clinton’s 46 percent. African-Americans made up nearly half of South Carolina’s voters in the 2004 Democratic primary.

On the first day the poll was conducted, Sunday, an estimated 30,000 people packed into Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, to hear TV talk-show host Oprah Winfrey explain why she believes Obama is the candidate with the “vision” for America.

The poll also showed that Democrats have a shot at winning South Carolina for the first time in 32 years, showing Clinton in a statistical dead heat with GOP front-runners in hypothetical head-to-head races for the White House.

The survey of all South Carolina registered voters, with a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, showed the former first lady with 48 percent in a hypothetical presidential face-off against former New York Mayor , who had 47 percent.

In a hypothetical matchup between Clinton and Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor edged out the Democratic senator by a single percentage point, 48 percent to 47 percent.

Jimmy Carter, in 1976, was the previous Democratic candidate to win South Carolina’s electoral votes in a presidential election.

Friday’s poll was released a day after Democrats gathered for a final debate before the January 3 Iowa caucuses, the first chance U.S. voters will have to choose 2008 presidential candidates.

Forty-one percent of Democrats responding to the new poll said they’ve definitely made up their minds about who they’ll vote for in the primary, while 22 percent told pollsters early primary results could help them decide.

The remaining 36 percent said they don’t know whom they’ll vote for, but those earlier primaries will not affect them.

Republican respondents to the new survey appeared less decisive about their choices, with 25 percent saying their minds were made up and 22 percent saying early primary results could help them decide. The other 52 percent said while they’re undecided, the earlier primaries will not affect their vote.

The poll’s question about what issues were most important to voters in determining their choice for president showed significant differences in the priorities between Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats placed Iraq and health at the top of their list, with 31 percent and 30 percent, respectively. The economy was third at 24 percent, followed by immigration at 7 percent, terrorism at 3 percent and abortion at 3 percent.

The economy was the most important issue for 24 percent of the Republicans, while immigration was next at 23 percent, followed by Iraq at 16 percent, terrorism at 13 percent, abortion at 11 percent and health care at 10 percent.

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