Video: Decision '08: Tim Russert talks numbers

By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 1/24/2008 7:22:17 PM ET 2008-01-25T00:22:17

Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama are leading in their respective parties' upcoming primaries, according to two new state surveys.

But a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that their rivals — John McCain and Hillary Clinton — are ahead nationally, with Clinton leading Obama by 15 points and with McCain moving from fourth to first in one month.

Just hours before a Republican debate here Thursday night, and five days prior to the Florida GOP primary, a Mason-Dixon poll has Romney leading McCain in the state, 30 percent to 26 percent, although that is within the survey's margin of error.

The debate will be broadcast live on MSNBC and streamed on msnbc.com from 9 to 10:30 p.m. EST. The debate will be moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams, who will be joined by Tim Russert, as well as St. Petersburg Times editor Paul Tash.

Romney and McCain are followed by Rudy Giuliani — who has campaigned aggressively in Florida for the past few weeks — at 18 percent and Mike Huckabee at 13 percent.

Meanwhile, in the South Carolina Democratic primary, just two days away, Barack Obama has an eight-point advantage over Clinton, 38 to 30 percent, per a new MSNBC/McClatchy/Mason-Dixon poll. Edwards comes in third at 19 percent.

But while Romney and Obama are leading in the upcoming contests in Florida and South Carolina, they're trailing nationally. In the new NBC/Journal poll, McCain is the choice of 29 percent of Republicans. Next comes Huckabee at 23 percent, followed by Romney at 20 percent and Giuliani at 15 percent.

McCain's rise to first is a striking change for the Arizona senator, who was in fourth place (at 14 percent) in last month's national poll. "The Republican Party is looking to fall in love or find a match," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

Hart explains that GOP voters first seemed to side with McCain; they moved to Giuliani, then even flirted with Fred Thompson, who dropped out of the Republican contest earlier this week. "Now they return back to Mr. Reliable — John McCain."

Rate candidates' positionsAs for Giuliani — who had been leading the GOP national field by double digits as of November — Hart says his political reversal of fortune in the last 10 months is one of the most drastic declines in support he has seen in presidential politics. Back in March, 58 percent of respondents viewed Giuliani positively, versus 14 percent who had a negative impression of him.

Now just 29 percent view him favorably, compared with 40 percent who see him in a negative light. "Rudy Giuliani is the incredibly shrinking candidate," Hart adds.

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In the Democratic race, Clinton is leading Obama nationally, 47-32 percent, with Edwards third at 12 percent. A month ago, when there were more candidates in the field, Clinton had a 45-23 percent advantage over Obama.

McInturff, the GOP pollster, notes that the biggest change in Clinton-Obama contest is one of race. In December, Clinton held a 40-23 percent lead over Obama among whites, as well as support from a majority of African Americans. But now, after the issue of race exploded in the Democratic contest — with Clinton and Obama supporters sparring over comments about Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama's teenage drug use — those numbers have changed.

According to the poll, Clinton's lead among whites has jumped, 53-24 percent, while Obama now has a 63-23 percent lead over Clinton among African Americans. "We have had a total shift in the African-American community," McInturff says.

That change is also evident in South Carolina, where the new MSNBC poll shows a 10-point decline for Obama among whites in just one week.

Although a generic Democrat has a 17-point lead over a generic Republican in the NBC/Journal survey, the race is much closer when McCain and Clinton are paired against one another. In that match-up, McCain holds a 46-44 percent lead over Clinton, although that difference is within the poll's margin of error. And in a McCain-Obama contest, the two men are tied at 42 percent each.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was taken of 1,008 adults Jan. 20-22, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points. The Mason-Dixon Florida poll was conducted Jan. 21-23, and has a margin of error of 5 percentage points. The MSNBC/McClatchy/Mason-Dixon poll of South Carolina was conducted Jan. 22-23, and also has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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